01/07/2002 1:00AM

For Bell, it's finally coming around

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Ray Bell is off to a good start at the Santa Anita meet. Three wins in eight starts makes no doubt about that.

But he has been around long enough to know when to get excited, and when to simply smile and nod. And nothing truly extraordinary had happened until last Sunday morning, when Eddie Delahoussaye paid a visit to Bell's barn.

"When Eddie comes back to the barn the next day, you know he likes the horse," Bell said. "I asked him if he thought the colt would run longer. He said, yes, by all means."

From such nuggets great hopes can spring, especially this time of year.

The horse in question is Special Offer, a son of Devil's Bag who made his first start for Bell and owners Bob and Beverly Lewis in a maiden race at Santa Anita last Saturday. And while he was narrowly beaten by Puerto Banus, a half-brother to Spain who is trained by Bob Baffert, Special Offer ran like a colt who enjoyed the challenge.

The 6 1/2-furlong race was on the San Pasqual Handicap undercard. It began as a hot dash between Gold Mine, a son of Mr. Prospector, and Music's Storm, a grandson of Storm Cat. Neither had competed before, but they seemed to like the idea, and Gold Mine was especially intent on getting the exercise over as quickly as possible.

Relentless Seller, a son of Golden Gear and a veteran of one race for Baffert and owner Jim McIngvale, followed the first two down the backstretch and into the far turn. That's when Gold Mine ran dry, which gave Music's Storm the lead - whether his jockey, Chris McCarron, wanted it or not - and allowed David Flores to make an aggressive move on the outside with Relentless Seller. There was a quarter-mile left to run.

Meanwhile, in a more mellow part of the race, the tall chestnut Puerto Banus was meandering through the field, picking up strays, and being dogged by Delahoussaye and Special Offer.

When the stretch arrived, Victor Espinoza had Puerto Banus on the far outside of a well-spread field, with Delahoussaye and Special Offer just to his left. Minor havoc ensued when Don't Holler and Corey Nakatani veered right, into First Insight and Laffit Pincay, who in turn tangled with Special Offer. These things happen when youngsters are let loose. To his credit, Delahoussaye's colt kept coming.

An eighth of a mile later, Special Offer was in dutch again. Delahoussaye found himself the meat in a Baffert sandwich between Puerto Banus and Relentless Seller, who was still scrapping with Music's Storm.

"He's obviously a campaigner, because that didn't affect him at all," Bell said. "Something like that gives a young horse every opportunity to suck back out of there, saying, 'Whoa, I'm not having any part of this. This is too claustrophobic for me.'"

The four young colts hit the line as if they were harnessed. Puerto Banus beat Special Offer by a short head, while Special Offer nosed out Relentless Seller for third. Music's Storm, still mumbling to himself about chasing Gold Mine, was beaten barely a half-length for it all.

It's very likely all four colts will show up as nominees to the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown, right there alongside Johannesburg, Siphonic, and Repent. Even mentioning them in the same context is blasphemous at this point, but that is the beauty of the game. In this era, a late start to a classic campaign is not a complete disqualifier.

In the case of Special Offer, he was ready to roll last summer. A work in 59 seconds at Santa Anita raised hopes all around. Then he popped a splint, and Plan B went into effect.

"These 2-year-olds you see running in the Breeders' Cup and the big fall races, they pretty much have to go blemish-free for the summer," Bell said. "Just a little bit of a cough and a sniffle can take you out of the picture. And that happens to most of them."

Bell bought two horses for the Lewises at the 2000 Keeneland September sale. Both are earning their way. In addition to Special Offer, there is Hot Contest, who won his maiden at 1 1/16 miles on Dec. 30.

"You try to be realistic," Bell said. "At this stage they're two nice horses with potential, but every race is going to have to be better than the last. I don't want to get overly optimistic, nor do I want to jinx myself."

The last time Bell and the Lewises were associated with a young horse of note, the plot was considerably more complicated. Bell bought Charismatic for the Lewises and was his first trainer until the owners sent the colt to the Wayne Lukas barn. One Derby, a Preakness, and an operatic Belmont later, and Charismatic was at least a temporary household word. He was also 1999 Horse of the Year.

"I've never held anything against Bob for that," Bell said. "Everywhere he went, he made it clear who bought the horse, and for that I have a lot of respect for him. He was even kind enough to give me four seasons in Charismatic. What kind of man does that?"

Fair enough, but wouldn't justice be served if either Special Offer or Hot Contest turns out to be something special? At the very least, Bell has a healthy dose of good karma coming.

"I'm glad you recognize that," he said.