03/24/2003 1:00AM

This year, fillies deserve spotlight


NEW YORK - It happens almost every year, which makes it a nearly annual oversight. So much attention is focused on 3-year-old males preparing for the Kentucky Derby that there is hardly any time and space left for the 3-year-old filly division.

It would be a particular shame to perpetuate the cycle again this year. In a season where the performances of 3-year-old males - with the exceptions of Empire Maker's tour de force in the Florida Derby and Badge of Silver's flash of brilliance in the Risen Star - have been largely uninspiring, the 3-year-old fillies have been the opposite. This is good timing, because for the first time this year there will be a parimutuel Kentucky Oaks Future Wager offered by Churchill Downs, in the same format as the Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

The Oaks Future Wager will run concurrently with Pool 3 of the Derby Future Wager, April 3-6, and if it catches on as fast as the Derby Future Wager did when introduced in 1999, it may be expanded to multiple pools next year. If that happens, maybe the cycle of ignoring the 3-year-old filly division for the 3-year-old male division will finally be broken.

Even with the unfortunate retirement of the indisputably top-class Composure, this crop of 3-year-old fillies boasts talent in numbers. In California, you will find, among others, Elloluv and Santa Catarina. Elloluv lost a couple of bitter struggles with Composure recently after shocking her last fall in the Hollywood Starlet, and she figures to benefit from Composure's premature departure from the racing scene. Meanwhile, Santa Catarina, a stablemate of Composure, may be of a mind to pick up the slack, judging from a runaway victory in her first start this year.

In Florida, the impeccably bred Yell put it all together in her impressive Davona Dale romp, while Ivanavinalot and My Boston Gal returned to top form finishing one-two in the Bonnie Miss. In Louisiana, Lady Tak couldn't have been more impressive winning the Fair Grounds Oaks; and in New York, Roar Emotion, winner of last year's Demoiselle, will surely improve on her comeback second in the Cicada.

The list doesn't even include two major members of the division who have yet to race this year. Awesome Humor, the undefeated winner of the Spinaway last summer, is working her way back from injury. Storm Flag Flying, last year's 2-year-old filly champion after her thrilling decision over Composure in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, has the distinction of being the best of her generation until proven otherwise. She took it easy in the heat of the south Florida winter, but is to get rolling in next month's Comely at Aqueduct.

Many of these fillies have the Kentucky Oaks on May 2 as their principal early season goal. After that some will turn their attention to New York's prestigious group of races for 3-year-old fillies, three of which have been tabbed for a redesigned New York Racing Association Triple Tiara - New York's triple crown for 3-year-old fillies.

The NYRA's new series for 3-year-old fillies, which was announced last December, eliminates the traditional series opener, the Acorn. Instead, the Mother Goose and the Coaching Club American Oaks, which were the second and third legs, are now the first two legs, and the third leg is the Alabama at Saratoga. No doubt to help quickly establish the new parameters of this old series, NYRA threw in a $2 million bonus for any filly who sweeps.

NYRA drove the ball a long way to the wall with these changes. By dropping the one-mile Acorn on June 6 and opening instead with the 1 1/8-mile Mother Goose on June 28, the series welcomes fillies coming out of the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks, many of whom would not cut back to a mile in the Acorn. Probably inadvertently, it also helps Pimlico's Black-Eyed Susan, a race with history that has needed a hand in recent years. Fillies can compete in the Black- Eyed Susan the day before the Preakness, and still have six weeks to be at tops for the beginning of the series.

Also, the series has been made a little tougher to win. Not to diminish what five of the seven who swept the series accomplished, but when Dark Mirage in 1968, Davona Dale in 1979, Mom's Command in 1985, Open Mind in 1989, and Sky Beauty in 1993 turned the trick, all three races were run at one track. Only Shuvee (1969) and Ruffian (1975) had to engineer their sweeps by racing at both Aqueduct and Belmont. Requiring a candidate to handle the surfaces at Belmont Park and now Saratoga raises the degree of difficulty.

What prevented NYRA from hitting the ball way out of the park with its revised series was its stubbornness in keeping the CCA Oaks at 1 1/2 miles instead of cutting it back to the 1 1/4 miles it ought to be. The distance progression of 1 1/8 miles, then 1 1/2 miles three weeks later, then 1 1/4 miles in another four weeks is illogical, and will certainly keep the connections of several prominent 3-year-old fillies from even contemplating participating in all three races.

That's too bad, but it's no surprise, and it makes the offer of a $2 million bonus for a sweep seem hollow.