07/04/2007 11:00PM

Valbenny takes big group along for the ride


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - You gotta have faith. The fun will follow. That pretty much sums up the way syndicate manager Aron Wellman will lead his troops into the breach on Saturday when their Irish-bred filly Valbenny takes on an international array of talent in the sixth running of the $750,000 American Oaks.

Already an institution, the American Oaks asks 3-year-old fillies to run 1 1/4 miles on firm California ground at a time when the best of their contemporaries are required to jump through similar hoops all around the world. And while no one would mistake the Hollywood turf course for the swards of Epsom, Chantilly or the Curragh, the American Oaks is about the best test of the young females of the breed that the West Coast has to offer.

Accordingly, the Hollywood racing department advertises the race by invitation only, paring down the participants to a select group that hopefully represents the available cream of key constituencies. The half-dozen past winners of the race have been scattered among Ireland (Dimitrova), Japan (Cesario), New York (Wait a While), and local stables (Ticker Tape and Megahertz). This year's field presents a similarly exotic profile, with Australia, Ireland, France, Japan, New York, and Kentucky adding spice to the heady mix.

Valbenny, for all her Irish origins, will be alone in carrying the hopes of the locals on Saturday. This is either a testimony to the lack of depth in the California ranks, or a tribute to Valbenny's domination of the division. In the spirit of compromise, let's call it a little bit of both.

Wellman, who heads LGL Racing (it stands for "let's get lucky"), found Valbenny racing as a 2-year-old in the northern climes of England last summer. Impressed by her heritage - she is a daughter and granddaughter of Breeders' Cup Mile winners - he brought her to California thinking that the one-mile Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park in November might be a sensible first step. She won it by three-quarters of a length.

Of course, it's never as simple as that. Valbenny is no angel. On occasion, in fact, she is the exact opposite, as her regular jockey, Alex Solis, can tell you after one of their prerace wrestling matches. It has taken the most solicitous care from trainer Paddy Gallagher and his crew to accommodate Valbenny's pecadillos.

Gallagher, true to form, won't say a bad thing about her. But then, Gallagher wouldn't say a bad thing about a horse if it was standing on top of him, ripping at his chest. "Just out of sorts, he is," the trainer might explain.

Gallagher describes Valbenny as "having a mind of her own," and as a concession he uses earmuffs as part of her equipment. To better enjoy the voices in her head, perhaps? Wellman thinks they keep Valbenny from hearing what her trainer is really mumbling under his breath.

"I can't give Paddy and his team enough credit," Wellman said. "When Alex came back after the Miesque, he said it was a good thing she won after the way she acted going to the post."

It is the peculiarity of the Thoroughbred breed that Wellman tries to convey to his partners, an eyes-wide-open approach that tries to cover the best and worst of eventualities.

The worst occurred on Memorial Day, when Wellman and a group of partners watched their stakes-winning mare Three Degrees fracture a hind ankle at the finish of the Gamely Handicap. The damage was so severe that Three Degrees had to be euthanized.

"I did a lot of soul-searching when that happened," Wellman said. "In the end, believe it or not, my faith in the game was instilled. I thought what happened would only affect our group of owners and the family at the barn. But for days afterwards, I couldn't believe the outpouring of support. My phone didn't stop ringing. I was flooded with e-mails. Total strangers sent me photos they had taken of Three Degrees, just as fans, watching her from afar.

"I tell my people that if you don't know anything about horse racing, I guarantee you it is the single riskiest venture you will ever get yourself into," Wellman added. "These animals, unfortunately, are perishable. Economically, the odds are against you. If you require return on your investment, this is not the kind of game for you. But if you want to give yourself a chance at the biggest thrill life can provide you with, then this is right up your alley."

So far, Valbenny has been all upside for her ownership group, which includes not only the 15 members of the LGL syndicate, but also more the experienced owners Tom Lenner, Michael Rosenmayer, and Mary Rita DiPietro. She knocked off the little Blue Norther Stakes at Santa Anita on the last day of 2006, came back from a brief break to finish a troubled sixth in the Providencia, then moved across town to Hollywood to sweep both the Senorita and the Honeymoon for the division. The bandwagon has grown in proportion with her achievements, and now it has arrived at the American Oaks.

"Those 15 partners of LGL turn into about 100 on race day," Wellman said with a laugh. "But that's great. It's become my mission to bring young, new, fresh blood into the game, and win or lose to show everybody how great the game can be."