11/06/2003 12:00AM

A day rich with storylines


ARCADIA, Calif. - Coming on the heels of the Breeders' Cup, the California Cup on Saturday at Santa Anita Park almost seems like too much too soon. Enjoy that massive feast two weeks ago? Make room for dessert.

So many horses, so many questions. The 14th running of Cal Cup - presented by the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association and the Oak Tree Racing Association - offers more than a mere $1.3 million in purses. The 10 races, with their 103 entrants, present endlessly fascinating handicapping puzzles, as well as scenarios of cultural intrigue.

The handicapping issues are more intelligently attended to elsewhere in this publication. As for the people and the horses, buckle up for some truly wild rides:

* The day begins with the Cal Cup Starter Handicap at 1 1/2 miles, in which we could find out the exact time and temperature at which Nick Hines's head will finally explode. Mount St. Hines was in rare form when Passionforcashin popped at $86.60 in a starter allowance race last week. Passionforcashin runs back on Saturday, so get a camera on the big guy. If Nick's horse is in the hunt, give him room. There are frail souls who have yet to recover from two years ago, when Hines won the same race with As We Know It.

* California used to breed distance horses all the time. The European blood nourished by such breeders as Louis B. Mayer, Rex Ellsworth, George Pope, and Connie Ring lasted well into the 1970's, but then (thank you Phalaris!) it petered out, leaving the state with a reputation as an assembly line for sprinters and tiring milers.

It's a bum rap (please refer to Tiznow), but the mentality exists, which is why the renovation of the Cal Cup Distance Handicap as an open race last year has now become an important part of the show. Going as the third on the Cal Cup card, the Distance will give classy Valentine Dancer a chance to spread her wings at 1 1/4 miles, while giving her trainer, Craig Lewis, his second straight trophy in the race.

* As with any regional event, some of the Cal Cup races can come up thin in terms of proven class. The talent pool for any statebred festival is finite. Then there is the $150,000 Cal Cup Matron, with a field as deep as anyone could want, including Cee's Elegance (winner of the A Gleam), Royally Chosen (Affluent's thorn at Santa Anita last winter), defending Matron champ Super High, and Summer Wind Dancer, winner of the 2002 Cal Cup Juvenile Fillies.

* The $150,000 Cal Cup Distaff, down the grassy hill at 6 1/2 furlongs, could turn out to be a family squabble between the full sisters Bold Roberta and Roberta's Mango. Both are gray daughters of Bold Badgett out of the Prospectors Gamble mare Roberta Ullmann, so check those tattoos. The only other time they met, last April on the same course, kid sister Roberta's Mango beat Bold Roberta by 1 1/4 lengths.

The sentimental star of the Distaff, however, will be Sweetcakesanshakes, the 8-year-old treasure who loves the hillside. Trainer Len Dorfman appears to have the old girl back in form, based on her second-place finish behind Bold Roberta at Fairplex Park. The only thing left is to make sure owner Mike Willman - a TVG Cal Cup commentator - does not swallow his microphone at some point during the running.

* Sweetcakesanshakes will be leading a parade of noble geriatrics on Cal Cup Day. Men's Exclusive (age 10) and Full Moon Madness (8) run in the $150,000 Cal Cup Sprint. Continental Red (7), Spinelessjellyfish (7) and two-time past winner Native Desert (10) go in the $175,000 Cal Cup Mile, while 7-year-old Sky Jack headlines the $250,000 Cal Cup Classic.

At the age of 6, with 48 starts to his name, Grey Memo is a pup compared to those old guys. A son of Memo, Grey Memo will be appearing in his third Cal Cup Classic, and if he runs his race, he will be closing as usual from the clouds.

"He's really been an iron horse," said Rick Arthur, who has been Grey Memo's racetrack vet since the old boy came under the care of Warren Stute, more than four years ago.

"He had a little bit of a knee problem as a 2-year-old," Arthur noted. "We gave him a little bit of time off for it, and there hasn't been a problem since."

Arthur, who does double duty as a director of the Oak Tree Racing Association, is not particularly surprised that there are so many accomplished veterans among the Cal Cup fields.

"The Cal Cup is a real opportunity, particularly for the older horses who might have a harder time competing in open company once they've gone through their conditions," Arthur said.

"As a result, the Cal Cup has become an event that many people with Cal-breds will point for over a period of time. People who think they have a decent Cal-bred go out of their way to protect them, in order to give them an opportunity to run on Cal Cup Day."