07/15/2001 11:00PM

Clowning around at Del Mar

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Don't take this the wrong way, but Del Mar will be full of clowns on opening day.

This would be in addition to the usual crowd of cocoa-buttered crazies, desperate for fun, penned up these past 10 months with nothing to do but fuss about the rising tide of San Diego County traffic. Quick, let them loose.

For the past month, perhaps even longer, there have been people actually planning, plotting - engineering! - the kind of goofball hat they will be wearing to Del Mar on Wednesday, the first of 43 days of racing. Prizes are offered to encourage such behavior. Last year the winner got a hot tub for carrying around what amounted to a pantomime horse on his head. This year the winner could be wearing anything from a 10-foot basket of fruit to a papier-mache depiction of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.

Ah, but those aren't the clowns.

Wander into the paddock on Wednesday afternoon, some time after the second race, and the place will be filled with real clowns, mischievous poseurs, and phoons of all flavor and description. These will be refugees from a Cirque du Soleil troupe, in town this week to entertain at the Del Mar Champions benefit on Saturday night. The benefit raises money for the school of veterinary medicine at the University of California-Davis. The clowns do it because they must.

If they are still performing by the time the fourth race comes around, don't expect the horses to be fazed in the least. You could stage a coup in the paddock and these old guys would not even blink. They eat clowns for breakfast.

Destiny's Venture is 9 and running for the 56th time. Awesome Daze is also 9 and coming over for number 58. Crimson Policy is 7, and he has run 60 times, while Copelan's Eagle, at age 11, will be answering the bell for the 63rd time.

Argolid has them all beat. At the age of 10, he will be competing in his 64th race. He is the poster boy for persistence. As a half-brother to California star Flying Paster, Argolid came into this world with a right to be any kind of runner. And he was on his way, until injuries began to take their toll.

Now Argolid is running out the end of his career alongside the other old pros, all of them for sale at claiming prices of $9,000 or $10,000. Racing is the only sport in which the major leagues and the minor leagues play in the same stadium on the same day - alternating innings between stakes horses and rock-bottom claimers. Argolid and company deserve special introductions and a round of applause just for showing up. Then they go out and try as hard as their old bones will allow.

It takes a special owner to handle such veterans with the respect and care required. Too often they are treated like nothing more than poker chips, ending up lost in the shuffle of horseflesh, disappearing to fates too horrible to contemplate.

Fortunately for Argolid, he has Ron and Susie Anson in his corner. The Ansons, along with trainer Alfredo Marquez, watch closely for signs that Argolid has lost his competitive edge. So far, it hasn't happened.

"When he tells us he doesn't want to race anymore, then he'll become my pet," Ron Anson said Monday afternoon. "I claimed him a year ago and I was hoping to get him past the half-million mark in earnings. He's done that, and he still loves to compete."

Anson was in his car, heading south from L.A. to set up shop for the meet at his Del Mar digs. But first he had to swing by his barn on the Del Mar backstretch to spoil Argolid with a ration of carrots.

"It would be cruel to turn him out in a pasture right now," Anson said. "He's smart. He takes care of himself. If he hooks some horse with a little too much class for him to handle, he just backs off and says, 'Okay, I'll get you next time.'

"I can't believe anyone would ever claim him," Anson added. "Everyone knows it costs a fortune to take care of his feet. But if someone ever takes him, the first thing I'd do is make sure I could buy him back the minute he's run his last race."

Once the fourth race is run on Wednesday and the old boys leave the stage, two divisions of the Oceanside Stakes will preview possible candidates for the $300,000 Del Mar Derby later in the meet. Still, it is wise not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Stakes horses are the exception to the rule. Most of the horses in the Oceanside will drift off the path and into the minor leagues. It was only seven years ago, on Del Mar's opening day of 1994, that Argolid started in a division of the Oceanside Stakes. And he's still around.

Never mind the clowns. Just send in Argolid.