03/21/2006 1:00AM

Clean start, and Carano's golden

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Carano acts like a mild-mannered pony in his stall at trainer Craig Lewis's barn. But put a saddle on the 5-year-old gelding, and you had better stand back.

"He's a very high-strung horse," Lewis said.

gets so wound up that his seven-start career includes two races in which he has completely blown the start. When it happened in his debut one year ago, the incident could be chalked up as simple inexperience. But then it happened again last summer at Del Mar, when Carano was returning from a five-month layoff as the odds-on favorite in a Cal-bred allowance. He broke slowly and finished last, beaten more than 17 lengths. First time out, and first time back - blown starts each time. It's a bad habit.

Yet the unusual thing about Carano is that after blowing the break in those starts, each time he followed with an impressive win.

"When things go his way, he runs very well," Lewis said. "When they don't go his way, he doesn't."

So what's it going to be Thursday at Santa Anita? Carano returns from a four-month layoff in a two-other-than allowance at 1 1/16 miles, and if Carano breaks with the field - he drew post 6 in a six-horse field - he can win. Even though Lewis has schooled Carano at the gate, he will hold his breath when the latch is sprung.

"When people or horses have quirks, they usually keep them, and he's a bad actor at the gate," he said.

Carano, a full brother to the recently retired millionaire mare Valentine Dancer, is trained by Lewis for owner-breeders Al and Sandee Kirkwood. Carano has won 3 of 7 and is making his first start since finishing seventh in the California Cup Classic.

Lewis said Carano was injured in the race. "It wasn't serious, but it was enough to impact his performance," he said.

Kent Desormeaux rides Carano for the first time Thursday.

The race also includes likely pacesetter Devil's Bay, County, Patriot's Pass, , and Capitao Risso, an interesting import from Brazil making his second start in North America.

won 5 of 18 in Brazil, including a Group 2, and ran well enough in his first U.S. start to suggest he can win Thursday. In his comeback race, Capitao Risso finished third, beaten 5 1/2 lengths by Magnum, who returned with a big runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap.