08/21/2002 11:00PM

Crowded house at Del Mar

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Just as Diogenes failed in his search for an honest man, the hunt this week for a trainer without a runner in the Sunday's Pacific Classic was going absolutely nowhere.

From barn to barn, phone to phone, the answer was the same. "Yep, I'm running. Wouldn't miss it for the world."

What was happening? Could this be California, where owners seem content to wait for the next one and trainers lay awake nights sweating over their win percentage? Don't they realize they could lose? Think of the embarrassment!

Past runnings of the Pacific Classic have ushered forth fields of seven twice, six twice and once a pathetic five, which prompted Craig Fravel, Del Mar's executive vice-president, to wonder aloud, "Wouldn't you think a million dollars would get you more than five runners?"

Usually not, at least not until Breeders' Cup time, and then everyone wants to get in on the act. For the rest of the season there is a shyness in the land, exacerbated by conflicting stakes schedules and a ripening crop of allowance purses. There were six runners in the Whitney Handicap, seven in the Iselin Handicap, six in the Hollywood Gold Cup, seven in the Suburban . . . and now 14 in the Pacific Classic.

"I'm surprised," said Doug O'Neill. "I guess they're not intimidated by Sky Jack."

Respectful, perhaps, and rightfully so. Sky Jack beat Momentum on the square in the Hollywood Gold Cup. If he runs back to that race he should be tough against Milwaukee Brew and the 3-year-old all-stars, War Emblem and Came Home.

More evidence must be supplied, however, before such Classic entrants as Speedy Pick, Nates Colony, Tapatio, and Jimmy Z can be taken seriously. Richard Mandella was asked to justify the presence of his allowance race winner Pleasantly Perfect in a race containing the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Santa Anita Derby, at level weights. It was suggested he might have been pressured by an overly ambitious owner, in this case Diamond A Stable's Jerry Ford.

"Nope, this was all my idea," Mandella said. "Besides, there was nothing in the book for nonwinners-of-three. And I think he really wants a mile and a quarter."

Mandella would be the last guy to feel intimidated by a million-dollar challenge, especially at Del Mar. He won the 1997 Classic with Gentlemen, who was heavily favored. It was in 1996, though, with the help of a horse named Dare and Go, that Mandella turned the Pacific Classic on its head by defeating Cigar, who was trying to win his 17th in a row.

War Emblem and Came Home are very nice 3-year-olds, but they have yet to remind anyone of Cigar. Not even the sight of War Emblem's smart five-eighths in 57 seconds and change this week could discourage Ron McAnally from entering Seinne, Tapatio, and Jimmy Z.

"He's a speed horse," McAnally said. "He's supposed to work that fast. The race is a mile and a quarter. And with all the speed in there, anything can happen."

McAnally has practical experience. In 1996, he won an 11-horse Santa Anita Handicap with Mr. Purple at odds of 18-1. The field that day was less than stellar. Anything could have happened, and did.

It was in 1976, however, that McAnally became a true believer in the power of the underdog. That is when Pay Tribute defeated a Hollywood Gold Cup field that included Dahlia, Foolish Pleasure, Avatar, Ancient Title and Riot in Paris. At nearly 14-1, Pay Tribute was by far the longest price in he field. All he did was win by 3 1/2 lengths.

"I wouldn't put any of our three in Pay Tribute's category," McAnally said. "But of the three, I think Tapatio has a chance to really improve. He came to me after running in Dubai last year, and he had thrush in all four feet. It took a long time to get them better, so we've only run him four times, all on grass, when he did most of his winning in Argentina on the dirt."

McAnally has yet to win the Pacific Classic. As Del Mar's all-time leading trainer, it's about time. Marty Jones, on the other hand, was deeply involved with the winner of the inaugural Classic in 1991 when he was assistant to his father, Gary Jones. They saddled Best Pal.

"I've never been involved in a more exciting win," said Jones, who has been training on his own since 1996. "The feeling was electric. The old grandstand was still here. And the fans really loved that horse."

Jones will be sending out Speedy Pick on Sunday for his first Classic starter. No doubt this is more the idea of owner Eddie Nahem than it is the trainer's. But that hardly matters. Speedy Pick is 3 for 16 and stakes-placed on the grass at a mile and one-half. Stranger horses have popped up for million-dollar pots, although Speedy Pick is clearly in over his head.

"He's a very nice horse with a lot of ability," Jones said. "He could run very good. And if I keep whining, he might even get a piece of it."