12/27/2002 1:00AM

Debonair Joe: Surprise, surprise


ARCADIA, Calif. - Craig Lewis would have preferred to have been a two-time stakes-winning trainer in December rather than a two-time stakes-winning breeder.

He reached the breeding milestone on Thursday when Debonair Joe won the $200,000 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita in a 26-1 upset, more than three months after he was claimed away from Lewis for $12,500 at Fairplex Park.

Now trained by Juan Pablo Silva, Debonair Joe is on a two-race stakes winning streak, having pulled a 52-1 upset in the Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park on Dec. 7.

On Friday, Lewis was asked if the turnaround left him surprised, a little embarrassed, or even shocked.

"All of the above," he said, with his typical dry wit.

While he was quick to praise Silva for Debonair Joe's success, Lewis and co-breeders Mira Loma Thoroughbred Farm have not been left out. They will receive lucrative breeder awards for Debonair Joe's recent wins.

"You have to take the bitter with the sweet," Lewis said. "I have to give Jose credit. He's done a good job."

Debonair Joe has been a rags-to-riches story more than once in his life.

He was bred by Lewis and the Valenti family's Mira Loma Thoroughbred Farm after they acquired his dam, Malita, for $2,500. By Debonair Roger, Malita raced for Donald and Marilyn Bailey and had one win in 16 starts. Her dam, Debi's Courage, was a minor stakes winner in the 1980's.

Lewis recalls that the late Pete Valenti wanted to breed Malita to Larry the Legend, the 1995 Santa Anita Derby winner whom Lewis owned and trained.

At the time, Malita was carrying Debonair Joe, who would turn out to be her fourth foal and first stakes winner. Debonair Joe is by Ole, who stands for $2,500 at Mira Loma as the property of trainer Henry Moreno. Located in Mira Loma, Calif., Mira Loma is home to eight stallions, including Ole and Larry the Legend. Pete Valenti's sons, Joe and Pete Jr., remain active in the farm.

Because of Debonair Joe's modest breeding, expectations were not high at the start of his career.

After getting his first win in a $40,000 claiming race at Del Mar in August 2001 in his third start, Debonair Joe won the Beau Brummel Stakes at Fairplex Park a month later. Later that fall, Debonair Joe finished second in the Gateway to Glory Stakes over 1 1/16 miles at Fairplex Park and third in the six-furlong Jess Cloud Memorial Stakes at the Big Fresno Fair.

Debonair Joe made three more starts at 2. He finished first in the restricted Free House Stakes at Hollywood Park, but was disqualified and placed third for causing interference in the stretch.

Debonair Joe was off from December until August of this year when he finished a well-beaten fourth in a $62,500 claimer at Del Mar. Three races later, he was claimed for $12,500 by Silva and Lynne Ristad. Since then, Debonair Joe has won 4 of 5 starts. Overall, Debonair Joe has won 6 of 18 starts and $314,085.

Lewis said he remains amazed at the sequence of events that led to Thursday's win.

"We bought the mare for $2,500," Lewis said. "The whole thing was a fluke."

After Debonair Joe was born, Malita was bred to Larry the Legend, a mating that produced the filly Broadway Deb. She was Malita's last foal. Lewis said she died in 2001 of colic.

Lewis and the Valenti family own Broadway Deb.

Earlier this year, Broadway Deb was in training, but she was turned out because of sore shins. She will return to Lewis's stable at the racetrack early in 2003.