08/25/2003 12:00AM

This Argentine legend no tall tale

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DEL MAR, Calif. - In the middle of Argentina, near a tapering finger of the Sierras de Cordoba, there is a town called Rio Cuarto. Lying on the northern rim of the Pampas, this is gaucho country, steeped in the tradition of the South American cowboy, where a fast horse can become the stuff of legends if he rises above the rest.

The racing world is being asked to believe that such a horse has emerged from Rio Cuarto, that he ran there once, perhaps in June 2002, on a makeshift quarter-mile track laid out on a hard-packed dirt road at the edge of town.

At the end of the road was a wire fence, and behind the fence was a cornfield. For this particular race on this particular day, the fence was unlatched and set aside so that the horses in the race could pull up without obstruction. Except for the cornfield.

Carrying a hefty gaucho saddle and rider, the winner of the race left the opposition in the dust, hitting the finish line many lengths in front, and promptly disappeared into the cornfield. When he emerged, he was taken straight to the big city of Buenos Aires, 700 kilometers to the east, and bravely marketed to all manner of North American buyers while winning one, two, and then three races by a 12, eight, and then eight lengths again.

What's more, we are being asked to believe that the horse from Rio Cuarto had an ankle that struck fear into an army of veterinarians and bloodstock agents, all of them lured by the growing legend but leery of spending serious American dollars for what they perceived as potentially damaged goods.

And now, as Monday morning dawned, we are being asked to believe that the horse from Rio Cuarto is the very same horse who beat Whitney, Oaklawn, and Strub Stakes winner Medaglia d'Oro on the square at Del Mar Racetrack on Sunday afternoon in the $1 million Pacific Classic, setting a track record for 1 1/4 miles in the process.

What's next? A talking mule?

Now that Candy Ride has established himself among the most important horses of the 2003 season, this is a good time to begin the process of separating fact from fiction. There is plenty of each swirling around the handsome colt.

Fact: He did have that wild and woolly race down the street in Rio Cuarto. But the race might have been no more or less unusual than a Camden Trial, a storied part of the American racing tradition, where good horses partook in annual springtime rituals, far from the hot lights of New York and Florida.

Fact: He does have a floating chip in his right front ankle. The chip was apparently sustained as a foal, which means it is something Candy Ride has lived with for much of his life. The only negative impact of the ankle occurred as a yearling, when Candy Ride's sale for $35,000 was nullified after X-rays revealed the fracture. Later, he went for $2,000.

Fact: Ron McAnally did tell Sid and Jenny Craig last January that Candy Ride was the horse who could win the coveted Pacific Classic, right in their own backyard, seven months down the line.

"I was sitting right there in the office when he talked to Mr. Craig," said Dan Landers, McAnally's assistant. "I could hardly believe it when I heard it. Ron was really putting himself on the line."

The source for much of the Candy Ride story is Dr. Ignacio Pavlosky, McAnally's man in Argentina. Pavlosky is a veterinarian and Thoroughbred breeder who lives on a farm outside Buenos Aires and who has known McAnally since the days of John Henry in the early 1980's. Of course, that's when everybody got to know McAnally.

The two men clicked, however, and today Pavlosky gets credit for finding not only Candy Ride, but such South American jewels as Bayakoa, Paseana, Ibero, Cleante, and Different, all of them major stakes winners in the U.S. under McAnally's care.

"I wish they were all like that, but there have been disappointments, too," Pavlosky said Monday morning.

Candy Ride just as easily could have been a bust, this time carrying a $900,000 price tag paid by the Craigs. It was Pavlosky's job, at the very least, to make sure the ankle was not an issue.

"They spent a whole day X-raying him," McAnally said. "I felt sorry for the poor horse. But you know, if you X-rayed an entire barn of racehorses, you'd probably be able to find something wrong with every one of them."

On Monday morning, McAnally and Pavlosky were standing on the balcony of the McAnally barn, overlooking the three-quarter pole of the Del Mar main track. In a few minutes, Pavlosky would be heading to the airport for his return to Argentina, but before he left he took a moment to stop by Candy Ride's stall 59 for one last farewell.

"This horse has very good balance," Pavlosky said as Candy Ride displayed his elegant conformation in the dim light of the stall. "His head is beautiful. He is very intelligent."

And very fast, over a testing distance of ground. If the Craigs decide to supplement Candy Ride to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, at a cost of $800,000, Pavlosky will be back. He would not want to miss the next installment of the legend.

"I know his story is hard to believe," Pavlosky said. "But you never know where a good horse will come from."