02/19/2002 12:00AM

D-Back's Finley, the real dude

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ARCADIA, Calif. - On any other day, the star of the party at the California Equine Retirement Foundation ranch would have been the shaggy brown beast in the roomy pipe pen who answered to the name of Caterman.

As the latest and most famous pensioner among the more than 70 horses at the ranch, Caterman represents history that includes some of the best racing moments of the early 1980's. His shining hour came in the 1981 Hollywood Gold Cup, when he defeated Eleven Stitches by a head, but then suffered the wrath of the stewards and was disqualified to second. Finishing behind him that day were a couple of old pros named John Henry and Temperence Hill.

Caterman is still proud and holding his ground at the age of 26. But he was shuffled into the second spot again on Monday afternoon when the latest member of the Foundation's board of directors was introduced to a gathering of local horse lovers.

Steve Finley, the guest of honor, could have passed for just another guy who was looking for a horse to ride or a stall to bed, instead of an All-Star centerfielder for the World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks who has become famous for his Gold Gloves and acrobatic defense.

In fact, Finley was on his way out of town, hitting the road to Tucson, where the D-Backs are gathering this week to commence spring training.

"Originally, we were told the report date was March 1, because the season went so late last year," Finley said. "But it's tomorrow."

Finley and his pals have only themselves to blame. They could have laid down quietly in Game 6 of the Series last year and let the Yankees put them away, just as the whole world expected. But noooooo. They had to taunt the champs with a 15-2 humiliation, setting up a Game 7 that will be remembered for as long as there are Arizona sunsets.

Finley went 2-for-4 and scored the first of his team's three runs on that fateful Nov. 4 night, when the Diamondbacks beat the Yanks, 3-2. He batted .365 for the Series, and now all that's left to do is fill the third finger on his right hand (his glove hand), with his first World Series ring.

"I've seen the design, and they will be spectacular," Finley said. "We get them on March 19." He made it sound like Dec. 25.

Finley was standing beneath a heater in a tent stretching out from a garage that had been converted into a buffet for the CERF gathering in the tiny farming town of Winchester. It was a far cry from the champagne shower of the World Series celebration in the Arizona clubhouse, but Finley was at ease among horse people in their habitat. As a native of Union City, Tenn., who grew up in Paducah, Ky., he was familiar with the sights and smells.

"I'm not saying I know a lot about racing, or how to ride," Finley said. "When we were kids, growing up on the farm, we knew enough about horses to catch them in the field, jump on them bareback and grab a handful of mane."

Now Finley and his wife, Amy, are acquiring a band of mares and building a farm in Rancho Santa Fe that will be used to prep yearlings for sales. He has been getting most of his bloodstock advice from Bobby King, a former West Coast trainer who manages Hanson Stock Farm, just down the road from the CERF property. In fact, one of Finley's mares, a daughter of El Prado named Jetting Trends, was overdue to deliver a foal.

"I guess I'll be learning a lot of patience," Finley said. "There's so much information out there. I've been trying to take in as much as I can. Breeding horses seems to be a lot like growing crops."

He's got that right. But it did not take Finley long to see the larger picture as well, beyond the blue-blooded breeding world and the fun and games of the track. When King clued him into the mission of nearby CERF - populated primarily by veteran claimers who have been traded more often than a utility infielder - Finley felt a natural affinity.

"My wife and I work a lot with abused children," Finley said, then nodded toward the old boys in the pens. "These horses aren't abused, I know. But they are unwanted. And they deserve a home like this."

At the age of 36, with 13 big league seasons behind him and a passion for physical conditioning, Finley figures to have plenty of good years ahead.

Still, he is looking beyond his guns, and a life as a Thoroughbred owner and breeder offers both a challenge and a peaceful appeal.

As Finley said his goodbyes, he draped an arm over the shoulders of CERF founder Grace Belcuore, who has discovered she is a die-hard Diamondbacks fan.

"Thank you very much, Grace," Finley said. "It's great to be a part of this. I have to apologize, though. I'm going to be kind of busy for the next eight months."

There is no telling at this point whether or not Finley will be in for the long haul. He is only the latest in a long parade of pro athletes, actors, musicians, and assorted celebrities to show interest in Thoroughbred racing. Many of them are gone before they make an impact, disillusioned and sucked dry by opportunists. If he persists, he will be the exception.

Finley appears to be the real deal, though. And if proof is required, it should be noted that on the way out of town Monday night, he stopped at Hanson Stock Farm to look in on Jetting Trends. She was still bursting with foal, ready to give birth at any moment.

"He didn't miss by much," Bobby King said the next morning. "She foaled last night at 1 a.m. A beautiful bay filly. I left a message on Steve's voice-mail, but I guess he was already on the field."

It must be spring.