07/26/2005 11:00PM

Alive, kicking, and winning

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Mark Twain provided the classic answer to his premature obituary in an edition of the New York Journal when he quickly let the world know, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

He was not alone. Upon the report of his death in a British magazine, Rudyard Kipling responded with the following note to the editors: "I've just read that I am dead. Don't forget to delete me from your list of subscribers."

Then there was the case of actor Abe Vigoda, who played both Fish on "Barney Miller" and Tessio in "The Godfather." When his death was announced in a 1982 issue of "People," Vigoda posed for a photo while holding the magazine and sitting up in a coffin.

Before last weekend, it would have been easy to believe that trainer Julio Canani had gone belly up, entered witness protection, or been abducted by aliens sent earthward to study the genus Peruvian. Even Canani himself was beginning to sense the buzzards circling, it was that bad.

This is the same Canani who enjoyed a career year in 2004, capped by that moment on a stage in Los Angeles last January, when he stood alongside owner Martin Wygod to collect an Eclipse Award for the 2004 champion 2-year-old filly Sweet Catomine.

Then, in the following weeks and months, a rapid succession of Greek tragedies befell the trainer. Known for his relatively clean record on drug violations, Canani was stunned when one of his horses tested a tad too high for carbon dioxide, prompting a 30-day prerace quarantine of all his Santa Anita runners. Sweet Catomine returned to win the Santa Ysabel Stakes, but then flopped in the Santa Anita Derby against colts. In the derby aftermath, Canani was charged by an overly zealous racing board with conduct detrimental to the sport for not disclosing that Sweet Catomine had been treated for bleeding at an offtrack clinic five days before the Derby.

Sweet Catomine was retired, and Canani and Wygod parted ways. The racing board charges against Canani were dropped. As the Hollywood meet dawned, the South American filly Andujar emerged as a potential star for the Canani barn. Then she was sold and switched to another trainer.

She was well sold, though, make no mistake, and everyone was happy with the deal, especially after Andujar popped at 7-1 in winning the Milady Handicap for her new connections (tickets were cashed). But the hole in the Canani barn was tough to fill, and there were precious few candidates waiting in the wings.

"I got nothing," Canani said as what appeared to be racehorses circled his tow ring on the day before Del Mar opened. "Look around. What do you see? Nothing!"

Everyone knows by now that Canani leans toward the dramatic. And thank goodness. In the buttoned-down, grey flannel training world of Todd Pletcher and Doug O'Neill, Julio splashes across the landscape like a Diego Rivera mural. He entertains and he delivers, as he did last summer, when his horses won four major stakes at Del Mar.

Of those four, Special Ring has joined Sweet Catomine in retirement, while Blackdoun is only just now legging up after undergoing ankle surgery. That left Amorama to carry the load, and she came through like a champ to win last Saturday's $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap over Island Fashion and Interconti-nental. Canani's reaction:

"Am I alive?"

Apparently, but the meet's still young.

"In the Mabee, she was a maybe," Canani said before anyone could stop him. "The handicappers were writing her off. Why? She was running good races, like her last race in the Gamely, when she only got beat a little more than a length."

Still, Amorama had lost five times since winning the 2004 Del Mar Oaks, and in the zero-sum world of modern racing, a series of losses are enough to drive a stake into the noblest Thoroughbred heart. As far as Amorama was concerned, Canani figured she was still competitive with the leaders of the local division. And for those who think Amorama is a horse for course, bear in mind that she won her two Del Mar races over two distinctly different grass surfaces.

On Saturday, Canani will shrug, ask for pity, and run the 3-year-old Rahy filly Shining Energy in the San Clemente Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Shining Energy came to Canani late last year an unproven commodity with four starts, then promptly won a maiden race and the La Habra Stakes at Santa Anita for owners Terry Lanni and Bernie Schiappa. She followed with a fifth in the 1 1/8-mile Providencia at Santa Anita and a seventh in the one-mile Senorita at Hollywood.

"She pulled a muscle at Santa Anita when she ran in the mile and one-eighth," Canani said. "When she ran at Hollywood, she still wasn't pushing behind. So we did some work on her - hind end, hocks - and now she's been training unbelievable, doing things nice and easy."

It's too soon to tell, but maybe those reports of Canani's demise were greatly exaggerated. With Shining Energy, Blackdoun, Amorama, and who knows what else he may pull out of the hat, Canani may be taking a lesson from the artist James Whistler. After his death notice was posted in a Dutch newspaper, Whistler wrote the editor, not to complain, but to share that reading his own obituary "induced a tender glow of health."