06/08/2001 12:00AM

White Heart can upset big boy Bienamado


PHOENIX - He is, for all intents and purposes, King Kong.

But could it be that Sunday's Grade 1 Charles Whittingham at Hollywood Park is Bienamado's Empire State Building?

While Bienamado has no doubt been the dominant turf horse in the nation since the Breeders' Cup, his hold on the throne may not be quite as firm as some suspect. That's because White Heart, a horse who won this race last year, and who confirmed his top-class status with a strong win in the Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs on the Derby undercard, is back for more, and he may well be the biggest threat to Bienamado's dominance other than injury.

Bienamado is almost underrated. Save for a dull performance (when he was hurt) in last year's Arlington Million, he has basically had a stranglehold on the turf distance division. That includes the best races at Hollywood and Santa Anita.

At this time last year many considered White Heart a prime Breeders' Cup Mile horse. Up to 10 furlongs, he is top-shelf, as he showed when he won last year's Whittingham at 1 1/4 miles. His Woodford Reserve win, over such stalwarts as King Cugat, Brahms, North East Bound, and Tijiyr, earned a big Beyer Speed Figure (108), putting him in the same category as Bienamado. White Heart deserves every bit of respect due a multiple Grade 1 winner.

But it's no overstatement to say that Bienamado is the best turf horse this country has seen in years, potentially more dominant than such champs as Buck's Boy or Chief Bearhart. Much of that has to do with the range of distances at which he's effective, and the versatility and step-on-the-gas reliability he gives jockey Chris McCarron. Aside from the Million he has had just one hiccup, when they tried him on the dirt in the Santa Anita Handicap and he went to his nose at the start, losing all chance. Fortunately, he didn't get hurt, and he came back with two more powerful wins at Santa Anita.

His best races, however, have come over the Hollywood turf. Paco Gonzalez has done a marvelous job keeping this gorgeous, bronze statue of a horse in peak condition, and he continues to make strides that indicate he is as good as his sire, Bien Bien, maybe better.

It is, however, entirely possible that White Heart is considerably more than a little prop plane buzzing around Bienamado's head. Trainer Neil Drysdale knew he would have to tackle Bienamado here, but instead of staying East for the Manhattan, against some of the horses he just beat in the Woodford Reserve, Drysdale brought him West. Drysdale knows a thing or two about winning big turf races; he just ran one-two in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile with Irish Prize and Touch of the Blues. It not a reach to say that White Heart is better than both of them, maybe by quite a bit better.

There are others, Cagney and Senure, who come into the Whittingham with their own considerable ability, but odds are the big two figure to end up in the spotlight at the end of the race.

Californian dreaming

On Sunday, Hollywood also presents the Grade 2 Californian at 1 1/8 miles on the main track.

While the race is routinely a prep for the Hollywood Gold Cup, this edition has a bit of a different look. That's because major horses such as Tiznow and Captain Steve are not running.

Aptitude and Skimming are, however, giving Bobby Frankel a strong hand. But let's face it: Aptitude's reputation has been inflated by virtue of Kentucky Derby and Belmont runner-up efforts. He is considered by many to be a top horse, but he has really done little else of merit. At least Skimming is a Grade 1 winner, and figures to benefit from a solid return try in the recent Mervyn LeRoy, his first race since last summer. Skimming got into high gear late in the Hollywood meet last year, then blossomed at Del Mar with a couple of huge efforts, including a big win in the Pacific Classic, where he counted Horse of the Year Tiznow among his victims.

Aptitude has never quite grabbed hold of the spotlight as he did last spring. Off a strong try in the Gotham and Wood, he was a good second in the Derby to Fusaichi Pegasus then in the Belmont to Commemorate. After an easy win against overmatched foes at Churchill Downs, however, he had no answer to the speed of filly Surfside in the Clark. Freshened and sent to Dubai for the Classic, he made little impression.

One not to be overlooked is Futural, winner of the LeRoy, who is in the best form of his life, and seems to have the same kind of desire and drive as the Philadelphia 76ers. He had always shown promise, and in recent months has delivered. Sure Skimming may be quicker, and Aptitude may have more oomph, but Futural is going to be in the right spot. Don't be surprised if he again finds away to spoil the show.

This doesn't mean he's up to handling Tiznow or Captain Steve, but like the 76ers, he figures to be an overlay and thus very playable when he goes to the post for trainer Craig Dollase Sunday.