11/18/2005 1:00AM

Bargain buys occasionally blossom

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Those who judge a book by its cover usually end up reading trash. Splashy wrapping goes only so far, then it comes time to test the quality of the product inside.

The same warning holds true when passing judgment on a Thoroughbred racehorse. Sure, the million-dollar babies look great on paper, and some of them even can run. But using only the cover price as a guide is the lazy way out. It's more fun to find the hidden treasures.

The patron saints of such unexpected gems include a familiar cast of characters. Stymie was claimed out of his third start in June 1943 for $1,500 from King Ranch and went on to run 128 times for Hirsch and Ethel Jacobs, winning a record $918,485. John Henry changed hands for a series of paltry sums and could have been claimed once for $20,000 before Sam Rubin paid $25,000 for the privilege of owning the headstrong gelding. Rubin was rewarded with two Horse of the Year trophies and more than $6 million in earnings.

Dark Star and Dust Commander were both $6,500 yearlings who went on to win the Kentucky Derby. For $1,200, in 1969, you could have bought Canonero II. And, more recently, one need look no farther than Singletary, a $3,200 yearling, who went on to win the 2004 Breeders' Cup Mile and $1.7 million.

The all-time sales hero has to be Seattle Slew, who cost just $17,500 as a yearling in 1975 and went on to establish a dynasty. But save room at that level for Sunday Silence, who could have been snapped up as a yearling in 1987 for not a whole lot more than his $17,000 buy-back price. In terms of sheer economics, based upon his Japanese stud career, he might have been the most valuable horse who ever lived.

Trainers, if they are smart, quickly remove the price tags, which is exactly what Tim Yakteen did when he was handed a bay filly who cost just $17,000 at Ocala's April sale of 2-year-olds in training. Bought by Jerry Jamgotchian, Yakteen's principal patron, on the recommendation of agent Bruno de Berdt, she didn't need to do much to earn her keep. But Yakteen has slowly unearthed what could be a diamond in the rough.

Her name is My Little Monkey, and she is entered to make her stakes debut on Sunday at Hollywood Park in the $100,000 Mocassin Stakes. At seven furlongs, the Mocassin is well positioned to give 2-year-old fillies a jump on the competition for the coming season, while at the same time avoiding the monsters of the division.

Yakteen has run My Little Monkey three times and likes her more with each passing race. He is not quite sure what her hole card will be, but one thing is certain: The filly is a stone cold closer in a world of one-dimensional speedballs.

"She showed a real nice kick in her first two races going one turn," Yakteen said, referring to a pair of six-furlong maiden events in which My Little Monkey was beaten in photos. "When she won going two turns, she sort of loomed up there, but she didn't kick clear as one would have hoped.

"So we've got that dilemma," Yakteen said. "Is she a true route horse, or is she a late-running sprinter? To look at her, you would have said she definitely wants to go two turns. She's right around 15-3, 16 hands. A very scopy filly. But her races might be telling us a different story. We will find out more on Sunday."

If nothing else, My Little Monkey should receive attention as a member of the last crop of Old Trieste, a brilliant stakes winner who died way too young. A son of A P Indy, Old Trieste foundered in early 2003 after turning 8, before his first foals even got a chance to race. Among those he left behind are Minister Eric, winner of the 2005 San Fernando Stakes, and Silver Train, hero of the 2005 Breeders' Cup Sprint.

My Little Monkey is no slouch on the dam side either. She is out of the mare American Profile, a daughter of Summer Squall whose half-brother, A P Valentine, won the Champagne and finished second in the Preakness and Belmont. Seems like an awful lot of pedigree for 17-grand.

"Yes, you can't fault her breeding," Yakteen said. "But in terms of conformation, she does have a few issues. She would have to, at that price, but sometimes they change physically, or learn to accommodate their flaws."

No argument there. Seattle Slew was notoriously pigeon-toed. Sunday Silence had hocks that nearly touched. And then there was a son of Quiet American who was so skinny and underdeveloped as a 2-year-old that he was nicknamed "The Fish," because he nearly disappeared when he faced you head-on. His real name was Real Quiet, and he was trained by Bob Baffert to win the 1998 Derby and Preakness before a narrow miss in the Belmont Stakes that cost him the Triple Crown.

Real Quiet's yearling price was $17,000 - My Little Monkey money - and Tim Yakteen was one of Baffert's assistants at the time.

"Hey, I like that," Yakteen said. "Wouldn't it be nice if there are some similarities?"