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Came Home taking Santa Anita route to Kentucky

Mar 26, 2002 4:44 AM

Paco Gonzalez has been down the Derby trail before. He knows how difficult it is for a budding 3-year-old to go a mile and a quarter, especially the last eighth of a mile, on the first Saturday in May.

In 1991, Mane Minister ran third in the Kentucky Derby and went on to finish third in all three Triple Crown races, a unique distinction indeed. Mane Minister was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby.

In 1997, Free House, the beguiling gray trained by Gonzalez, also finished third in the Run for the Roses, after winning the Santa Anita Derby.

If the fates allow on April 6, Gonzalez will saddle the favorite in the 65th edition of the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the West’s final major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby on May 4. That horse would be Came Home, a homebred son of Gone West whose only loss in six races occurred in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last October 27.

Came Home broke from the No. 11 post position in a field of 12 that day and had his chances diminished by vying for the lead early in the 1/16-mile race and by running on the compromising inside late. He eventually finished seventh by 5½ lengths behind the undefeated Johannesburg, who went on to earn an Eclipse Award as best 2-year-old.

In two starts this year, Came Home won the San Vicente Stakes at seven furlongs by four lengths and the San Rafael Stakes at one mile by three lengths. The dark bay Kentucky-bred colt has yet to be Âí­seriously threatened in his victories, winning his six races by a combined margin of 21 lengths. But critics say Came Home will be found wanting at the Kentucky Derby distance. Even Gonzalez expressed doubt early this year.

“I don’t know about a mile and a quarter,” Gonzalez said well before the San Vicente on February 2.

It seems every day has been an adventure this campaign for Came Home. So far, he has fought off bouts of fever and overcame being cast in his stall, a plight that is described in veterinarians’ lingo as a horse being “positioned on its side or back, and wedged against a wall, such that it cannot get up.”

Despite all that, through a myriad of circumstances, Came Home has emerged as the undisputed favorite for the Santa Anita Derby, an established proving ground for the Kentucky Derby.

Gonzalez, a 57-year-old native of Yahualeca, Mexico, sees Came Home as much more advanced than Free House. That can only be considered a plus.

“This is a different kind of horse,” Gonzalez said. “Free House was a little green, didn’t know what racing was all about. Came Home is all business, much more mature than Free House at the same point in their careers. That’s a big advantage.”

OK. Let’s say he can handle the mile and one eighth of the Santa Anita Derby against only a few rivals. What about a gate full of horses at the Kentucky Derby distance?

“I think he can go a mile and an eighth,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think the distance will be any problem.”

Gonzalez has been the private trainer for the successful business partnership of Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan for nearly two decades. Understandably, he is focused on their horses and has little interest in the 3-year-old picture nationally.

“That’s their concern,” Gonzalez said of rival heavy hitters on the Derby trail. “I just watch my horse.”

So far, it’s strategy that’s paid off.

THE HOMESTRETCH: Asked if he was considering a “big name” rider for the Wood Memorial, in place of Laffit Pincay Jr., who rode Medaglia d’Oro to a surprise victory in the San Felipe Stakes, trainer Bobby Frankel said he already has a “big name” rider in Pincay, who now has a live mount in a bid to win his second Kentucky Derby. His only previous victory came in 1984 aboard Swale . . . How can a horse go from being out of the Triple Crown picture to back in it in less than a week? Simple, if an X-ray was misread. Here’s Bob Hess Jr.’s explanation on the Irish-bred Azillion, who was announced out of Saturday’s Spiral Stakes with an ankle injury, but who ran and finished a game second: “He had a little filling in his right ankle and we had it X-rayed. I was told by one of my top people that there was a chip in the ankle. I told you he was out of the Spiral and had even set up surgery. But I hadn’t looked at the X-rays. Long story short, there’s no chip. He had a tiny bit of a spur and he must have just wrenched his ankle and it blew up. But the next day, it was perfect.” Hess says Azillion could go straight to the Kentucky Derby, or skip it and go Lone Star Derby, Belmont Stakes . . . Agent Nick Cosato says he is “pleasantly surprised” by the strong showing of Pat Valenzuela, who ranks sixth in the Santa Anita standings with 25 wins. “I’m not stunned, not shocked, because he’s come back before (from suspensions) and done well, but he’s working hard in the mornings and he’s riding good in the afternoons. It’s all paying off.” . . . Seen huddling together in Santa Anita’s box seat area, this rare sighting: Bobby Frankel, D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, a veritable Murderers’ Row among contemporary trainers. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.