08/05/2002 12:00AM

The Breakfast Club (rated R)


DEL MAR, Calif. - Noble Threewitt once had an owner tell him to claim a horse that was trained by Warren Stute. Fat chance.

"He's about the last guy on earth I'd claim a horse off," Threewitt told his patron. "He's a very close friend of mine."

"What do you mean, close friend?" the owner wondered. "I've never even seen you talk to him!"

Threewitt shot the guy a cold eye.

"I don't see what that's got to do with it," he replied.

In fact, it had nothing to do with it at all. Honor and friendship among professional horse trainers has more to do with reputation and longevity than tee times and cozy encounters at the pub. Threewitt is 91. Stute is 80. Between them they have accumulated more useless knowledge and incriminating evidence than any two hombres on the California backstretch.

"That Noble is my hero," Stute said. "He's done more for the backstretch workers than all the rest of us put together."

Enough of the sweet talk. This was Monday morning at Del Mar. Overcast in the Threewitt barn. Bright and sunny just down the path at Stute's shed row. Noble finished a troubled third the day before with Bitingly Cold in a $40,000 starter allowance, while Warren got the money in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap when Grey Memo upset heavily favored Congaree.

"Ask him how the wedding was," Threewitt said, referring to the Bob Baffert-Jill Moss nuptials last Saturday night. Stute apparently was on an exclusive list of local trainers invited.

"It was based on winning percentage," Baffert said earlier in the week.

Stute, who had won with 14 of 76 starters going into the weekend, certainly qualified. Then, instead of dancing with the bride, Stute dusted the groom in the following day in the San Diego. Baffert trains Congaree.

"The wedding was first-class," Stute said. "We sat at table 21. Wayne here was at the 'Potential Owners' table up front."

Wayne Hughes laughed. The best humor always holds a grain of truth. It is doubtful, though, that the patronage of a man like Hughes can be bought for a tasty entree and a serving of cake. His loyalty is legendary, to trainers like George Vogel, Al Stall, and now Ron Ellis, although recently Hughes has let a few runners wander over to the Warren Stute stable. Chances are, no matter what happens their friendship will survive.

Hughes, the Stutes - Warren and Mel - along with fellow trainer Henry Moreno are at the core of a daily backstretch breakfast club that makes the raunchiest Dean Martin celebrity roast look like evening vespers. The club may have lost a few members to attrition in recent years, but there is still plenty of zing, and a thick skin is required.

"Have you noticed, now that Warren isn't galloping his horses any more, how much better they're running," Hughes said. Mischief was afoot.

"I had to stop when I had my second stroke," Stute said. "What was that, two or three months ago? I can't remember."

"Maybe that's because you had a stroke," Hughes cracked. "I'd planned to wait until after your second one to pick a fight, but you're doing so good I might have to wait for stroke three."

Warren liked that one, but he does miss getting on his horses. Last summer at Del Mar, when he was only 79, he could be seen at dawn's light, wearing bermuda shorts and hard black shoes, taking such runners as Grey Memo and Go Go through their morning exercise. He did the same thing over the past half-century with such top runners as Table Mate, Tonga, Snow Sporting, Figonero, June Darling, and Magical Mile.

Just to put things in perspective - almost too much perspective, in fact - Stute won his first stakes race at Del Mar in 1950 when Great Circle took the Del Mar Derby. Fifty-one years later, his shirts are still starched and his Stetson still sits squarely on his head, although there is a trace of a limp left over from that latest stroke.

"Warren was on his way to the bar the other night, and I told Mel it looked like his limp was almost gone," Hughes said. "Mel said one more trip to the bar and it would be."

Grey Memo, now age 5, ran only once at Del Mar in 2001 and came up short in an allowance race. He made international headlines last March when he won the Godolphin Mile at Nad Al Sheba, on the Dubai World Cup undercard. Subsequent losses in the Metropolitan Mile and the Triple Bend Handicap pushed his accomplishment into the background, hence his price of 14-1 in the San Diego.

"I don't think he's ever been better in his life," said Stute, who has handled Grey Memo through all 37 of his starts. "His works lately have been his best ever. I just think he's getting older and better. Some horses evidently do that."

Whatever the reason, Stute would be the last guy to take any credit. Besides, if he tried he wouldn't make it past breakfast.