01/15/2004 1:00AM

After 20-year wait, a whiff of roses

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ARCADIA, Calif. - If Rafael Becerra is going to return to the Kentucky Derby, 20 years after his first and only experience with America's most captivating horse race, the trainer will need to be smiling at the end of Saturday's Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita Park.

The object of Becerra's attention is St Averil, Stan Fulton's half-million-dollar baby, who should be favored in the 1 1/16-mile Santa Catalina. St Averil earned the distinction after his earnest pursuit of Lion Heart in last month's Hollywood Futurity, resulting in a second-place finish that did nothing to damage the budding reputation of either colt.

In the Futurity, also at 1 1/16 miles, St Averil tracked the free-running Lion Heart while being held in check by Tyler Baze. That's an Outrage threw the race a curve when he pulled Gary Stevens to the leaders on the far turn along the inside, a move that triggered a burst from St Averil and brought them both to the long red tail of Lion Heart.

Lion Heart, as was discovered, had plenty more in the tank. He drew away from his opposition deep in the stretch to win by 3 1/2 lengths and leave his backers wanting more. St Averil, to his credit, ran on like a young pro. His only crime was being second-best to a very good colt.

Since self-delusion is an expensive luxury, Becerra tried to analyze St Averil's Futurity performance without kidding himself. In the end, he liked what he saw, especially since his colt had run only once previously, and in a sprint.

"To get him to the mile and one-sixteenth last time, I really worked him hard," Becerra said Thursday morning at Santa Anita, where he stables his string of 39. "Because of that, I went easy with him from that race to this one. I hope he doesn't bounce. I don't think he will. He looks good and he's doing good."

In order to make the jump from a maiden sprint on Nov. 9 to the two-turn Futurity on Dec. 20, St Averil got a five-furlong turf work on Nov. 23, a bullet five-eighths on Nov. 30, a stout seven-eighths on Dec. 7, and then another bullet five-eighths six days before the race. Whew!

Since the Futurity, Becerra has countered with a modest half on Jan. 2, followed by another five-eighths last Sunday that mirrored St Averil's pre-Futurity move.

"At least for this race we don't have to hook a real, real tough one," Becerra said, noting that local 3-year-old leaders Action This Day and Lion Heart are staying in the barn. "So I think it's a perfect time for us to find out where we're at with this colt. If he wasn't doing so good, I wouldn't have pushed to run him here."

Becerra is aware that the season of second-guessing is upon us, with trainers in all regions gearing up for the intense scrutiny of the Kentucky Derby trail, when every move is thrown open to question - from workouts to riders to choice of Derby preps - and Tagamet becomes the breath mint of choice.

In the end, only the cool will rule, those trainers who rise above the chatter and take their patrons along for the ride. In recent years we have seen brilliant examples. There was Neil Drysdale's ringmaster management of the tempestuous Fusaichi Pegasus. There was John Ward's calculated resistance to cage-rattling workouts for Monarchos. And last year, it was Funny Cide who thrived because of Barclay Tagg's loyal march to his own lonely drum.

Becerra made his Derby bones in 1984, at age 29, with the California-bred Fali Time, winner of the Hollywood Futurity and the subsequent San Felipe. At the time, Becerra was the top assistant in the power-packed Gary Jones barn, and Fali Time was their ticket to the top.

"I was in Kentucky for two weeks," Becerra recalled. "Had a great time, too. Fali Time loved it back there, and he ran a good race in a very tough field."

In fact, Fali Time was involved in a chapter of Derby lore. While he watched Laffit Pincay and Swale begin to pull away, Becerra thought their colt was gearing up for a second-place finish when Gate Dancer swerved left in the stretch and bumped Fali Time badly. For the first time in Derby history, a runner was disqualified on an interference call - Gate Dancer was dropped from fourth and Fali Time elevated, which gave his people a $25,000 piece of the purse.

Unlike St Averil, Fali Time was thoroughly combat-tested. Even before he got to the winter Derby preps, Fali Time had run seven times as a 2-year-old. St Averil, with just two starts, is more typical of the contemporary Derby campaigner. Still, he needs to grow up fast if he is going to cope with the challenges ahead, and it is Becerra's job to keep St Averil's mind and body on course.

"He's developing a lot and still learning a lot," Becerra said. "It's the same with us. We never finish learning. At least, I'm that way. But if he's the colt I think he is, I think he'll be a special horse."