03/11/2005 12:00AM

This champion is one cool cat


ARCADIA, Calif. - Champion filly Sweet Catomine missed by just two days the chance to experience the hospitality of the Santa Anita Park detention barn, where the horses of trainers cited for a high post-race bicarbonate count have been housed for the last month or so, beginning 24 hours before a scheduled start.

The term of detention expired Friday for the horses trained by Julio Canani, which includes Sweet Catomine. Had the 24-hour order for Canani runners still been in effect, Sweet Catomine would have reported to the detention barn, located in the northwest corner of the backstretch, at about 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon in anticipation of her start in the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks on Sunday.

Every horse, of course, reacts differently to any interruption in his or her normal routine. Some are unfazed, while others might fall to pieces. Such international jurisdictions as Japan, Hong Kong, and Dubai require runners to be sequestered and supervised several hours before their races. This reporter's most enlightening first-hand experience came in Australia, at historic Flemington Race Course, where all the day's starters were tethered in open stalls arranged around three sides of a park-like quad that was completely accessible to the public.

American racetracks are probably a long way from such full disclosure, even though the idea of enlisting the eyes and ears of the public in pre-race scrutiny could be both effective and cost efficient. Detention and surveillance schemes have been circulating in California for years, with increasing volume more recently, but the commissioners of the California Horse Racing Board have yet to act on any cohesive plan.

As a result, the Santa Anita Park detention procedures for first-time high bicarb tests do not have legal teeth, such as fines and suspensions. They do, however, force a trainer to practically wear a scarlet letter advertising the test results and quarantine. Each of the four trainers cited so far at the meet reacted differently: Vladimir Cerin with equanimity and cooperation, Adam Kitching-man with apologetic acknowledgement of transgression, Jeff Mullins with combative indignity, and Canani with abject frustration. None of them, it should be noted, questioned the accuracy of the basic testing procedures.

Marty Wygod, owner and breeder of 2004 champion juvenile filly Sweet Catomine, was part of a Del Mar Thoroughbred Club board of directors that got the ball rolling on independent testing for alkalizing agents last summer. When the trainer of his champion was cited, Wygod did not back down from his zero-tolerance attitude. The owner was, however, satisfied the Canani test was a dramatic exception to the trainer's record.

"I reviewed all of Julio's tests, going back to last year, to reconfirm that this was the only time one of his horses exceeded the threshold level," Wygod said. "I don't know how it happened, and he doesn't know how it happened. But as far as I am concerned, the trainer must take the responsibility for all of the horses in his barn."

Chances are, had Sweet Catomine been required to spend the night in the bicarb pokey before the Oaks, it would not have made a bit of difference. Never mind that her Oaks opposition appears to be outclassed. As far as Wygod is concerned, you could lead his filly through fireworks on the way to the track and she'd never bat an eye.

"When we shipped her to Texas for the Breeders' Cup, she never turned a hair," Wygod said Friday morning. "She just does not get shook up over anything."

Certainly, nothing from among Sweet Catomine's own filly crop of 2002 has so far been able to raise her pulse. She has dispatched four straight stakes fields with ease, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall and the Santa Ysabel Stakes in January, both at the Oaks distance of a 1 1/16 miles.

"We don't even understand how good she is yet," Wygod said. "But at some point we do need to find out. That's why we'll be looking at running her against colts in the Santa Anita Derby after the Oaks. I think that would be a good testing ground before we even begin to consider a challenge like the Kentucky Derby for her."

Fillies have won the Santa Anita Derby before - Ciencia, Silver Spoon, and Winning Colors are their names - and some very good ones have failed, including Busher, Honeymoon, Eliza, Terlingua, Darling June, and Life's Magic.

"I realize that," Wygod noted. "And I also realize time doesn't mean that much, but she has consistently outraced males running the same distance on the same day. I'd rather she run a good race in the derby here without necessarily winning than not know just how good she can be."

Wygod quickly steered his comments back to the race at hand. No sense in tempting fate by considering the Oaks in the bag. All he needed was a look at the morning news - that champion Declan's Moon was injured and out of the Santa Anita Derby - for a grim reality check.

"This is such a tough game," Wygod said. "And he is truly a gifted horse. I wish he could have run in the Santa Anita Derby, because if our filly is as good as we think she is, I don't think it would have mattered."