11/29/2001 1:00AM

Cashel Castle sprints to prominence


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Barry Buchholz was satisfied with his decision. Retired from the supermarket business, and owner of a small breeding operation, Buchholz was going to divest himself of his Thoroughbred interests.

In their Georgia hometown - Cuthbert, population 4,500 - Buchholz and his wife, Sandra, decided it was time to have a little fun. Time to travel. It was spring, a good time to leave behind the worries of running a business. Then came the phone call that delayed everything.

Buchholz had sent a 2-year-old to Ocala, Fla., to prepare for the April sale of 2-year-olds-in-training. The gray colt was sired by Silver Ghost, and out of a nondescript Unreal Zeal mare. He probably was no champ. His value? Whatever the market would bear.

At the training center where he was being prepared by Buddy and Michael Yates, the colt emerged as a standout. Beyond raw ability, he showed remarkable intelligence. Unfortunately for the consignor, the intangibles were not likely to result in a higher sales price. Michael Yates phoned Buchholz, who recalled the conversation:

" 'You need to keep that horse,' he said. So I yanked him out of the sale."

Good move. Under the guidance of Chicago trainer Chris Block, Cashel Castle has gone from unknown maiden to one of the country's most promising 2-year-olds. He first piqued interest when he overcame trouble to win his Oct. 7 debut at Arlington Park by nearly five lengths, and followed with a romping Nov. 2 allowance win at Hawthorne. The colt's second win generated purchase offers in the high six-figure range, several of the potential buyers confirmed. No sale. Then last Friday, Cashel Castle won the Hoosier Juvenile by eight, earning a 106 Beyer Speed Figure. Only two juvenile colts this year have run faster - Came Home and Roman Dancer.

Beyond speed, Cashel Castle's form holds. The Godolphin colt he beat in his debut returned to win. The colt he beat in his second start returned to win a minor stakes by seven. And at Hoosier, Cashel Castle drubbed Handsome Hunk, a Keeneland stakes winner who previously defeated Labamta Babe, the subsequent third-place finisher in the Grade 3 Hollywood Prevue.

Potential buyers have taken notice. Since Friday, Buchholz said, he has fielded multiple offers, from California to Kentucky. For now, there are no plans to sell Cashel Castle. "I've set a ridiculously high price on him," he said. He would not specify the price he would accept, but said he declined an offer of $1.8 million.

What could account for a small breeder turning down such a seemingly exorbitant sum? Buchholz recognizes how rare it is to breed a top-class horse. It's been quite a long wait since the last one he bred - Grade 1 winner Lunar Spook. Said Buchholz: "We were really new in the business, we'd only been it for five years, and we didn't realize how special she was."

Lunar Spook was sold after winning the 1993 Ashland, and as Buchholz found out, she was not easy to replace. "I think we had it in the back of our minds that, hey, [breeding] is a piece of cake. After we sold her, we realized it was a tougher route. Since then, we haven't had anything like her." Until now, perhaps.

Buchholz also bred Cashel Castle's dam Desviacion, an Unreal Zeal mare who is a half-sister to Lunar Spook. Unfortunately as it relates to the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, Cashel Castle may be limited by pedigree. His dam won her first try at one mile at Sportsman's Park, then lost her next six route races. Her only other foal to win, Scatter The Crowd, has sprinted 27 of 29 starts, and finished off the board in both routes.

If the Derby proves out of reach, there are plenty opportunities for a top middle-distance 3-year-old. Cashel Castle departed Hawthorne on Thursday, bound for Florida. According to the colt's trainer, Cashel Castle could make his 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park. For now, Block will remain in Chicago.

"To go south for the winter, you have to have a string of horses. Guys like Pletcher and Mott, they have more than one Cashel Castle in their barns. I've just got this one," Block said. No regrets. Block will turn the colt over to Barry Menifee, and travel to Florida to supervise final preparations for the colt's next start.

For now, Derby dreams are on hold.

"My guess is he could could get a mile and a sixteenth, and I'm basing that on how he handles everything mentally," Block said. "He rates as easy as you'd want him to rate, I think that will enable to get him that far. He has a very efficient stride, he has no wasted action."

The colt's owner also recognizes the challenge in the son of Silver Ghost stretching his speed. For now, Buchholz is just having a good time. "I don't think we really know how good he can be. He was well-tested at Hoosier, and took it in stride. Whether he can go a distance of ground or not is a different story. I tend to think he can, because he's so easy on himself."

"When you get on a ride like this, you have to appreciate it. We want to enjoy him. It's time to have a little fun."