03/22/2002 1:00AM

Defying the aging process


ARCADIA, Calif. - At the start of his 9-year-old season in Sunday's $125,000 Crystal Water Handicap at Santa Anita, Native Desert amazes trainer Juan Garcia.

"He still looks like a 3-year-old," Garcia said. "He's in really good shape."

A winner of 19 of 62 starts and $1,583,891, Native Desert is running in the Crystal Water Handicap for the fifth consecutive year. Fourth in 1998, Native Desert won the Crystal Water in 1999, finished fourth in 2000, and was second last year, a neck behind Road to Slew.

Understandably, Native Desert is the favorite and will be the 123-pound topweight in the Crystal Water, run over a mile for California-breds.

The Crystal Water will be Native Desert's first start since he finished seventh in the Citation Handicap last November, a performance that does not concern Garcia. He blames the loss on a grabbed quarter that had bothered Native Desert late last year and the wet condition of the turf.

After the Citation, Garcia said, Native Desert earned a vacation. "We decided to stop," Garcia said. "We cut out about three-quarters of the foot. I laid him off for three weeks and started slow. I didn't want to give him too much time off because he'd be tough to bring back."

Friday, the patch was still visible on Native Desert's front right foot, but the trainer insists the gelding is in good spirits.

In the past, Native Desert has run well after layoffs. He starts from the outside post in a field of nine in the Crystal Water Handicap, and should have plenty of pace to chase.

Macward, Hugh Hefner, and Lily's Lad will ensure a fast pace.

Spinelessjellyfish has the class to beat Native Desert but has poor recent form, finishing well beaten in two starts this year. A stalker, Spinelessjellyfish was second to Native Desert in the California Cup Mile last November and dead-heated with Native Desert for first place in the California Turf Championship last September at Bay Meadows.

"I'm trying something new," trainer Jenine Sahadi said. "I'm pulling out all the stops and taking the blinkers off."

The lack of equipment may help the chances of Spinelessjellyfish, but he must still beat an ultra-consistent Native Desert, who shows no signs of slowing down at an advanced age.

Came Home on target for Santa Anita Derby

Came Home, the winner of two important stakes this year, worked five furlongs in 1:00.60 on Friday and remains on schedule for the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 6.

The workout was a relief for trainer Paco Gonzalez, who has had a rough few weeks with Came Home after the colt scored a victory in the Grade 2 San Rafael Stakes over a mile on March 2.

Owned by a partnership, Came Home missed a few days of training last week after he became cast in his stall. Came Home underwent a nuclear scan last weekend, but the tests showed no injuries, permitting a resumption of training.

In Friday's workout, Gonzalez timed Came Home in 1:00.40, galloping out six furlongs in 1:13.60. The winner of the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes last summer at Saratoga, Came Home worked alone and was ridden by Chris McCarron.

Gonzalez says Came Home can be ready for the Santa Anita Derby, but he would prefer to have time for two more workouts. "You don't want to lose a day," he said. "But he gallops very strongly."

Derby field will have at least seven

Came Home will be favored in the Santa Anita Derby, a race that had seven probables as of Friday. Other possible runners are Danthebluesgrassman, Easy Grades, Fonz's, Lusty Latin, U S S Tinosa, and Yougottawanna.

U S S Tinosa and Yougottawanna are trained by Jerry Hollendorfer. Yougottawanna upset Danthebluegrassman in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on March 9. U S S Tinosa was second to Medaglia d'Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 17.

Lusty Latin finished third in the El Camino Real Derby at 58-1, closing from last in the field of 10.

"He's a got a great style and the added distance should help him," trainer Jeff Mullins said.

Mullins is less certain of plans for Captain Squire, the winner of the Turf Paradise Derby in February. Captain Squire returned to finish seventh in the El Camino Real Derby. Possibilities include the California Derby at Bay Meadows on April 13, the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park on April 6 or the Santa Anita Derby.

Captain Squire would have to be supplemented to the Santa Anita Derby for $15,000.

"We're not sure what we'll do," Mullins said. "We'd run here if we didn't have to pay the late fee."

Souvenir Copy filly beats males

Souvenir Copy, the winner of the 1997 Del Mar Futurity, was represented by his first winner on Friday when Long Term Wish scored a narrow victory in a two-furlong race for 2-year-olds.

Friday's first race was an open race, but the fillies Long Term Wish and Newport Nikki, the 6-5 favorite, finished one-two.

Long Term Wish ran two furlongs in 21.98 seconds under David Flores. She is owned by John and Betty Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm and trained by Caesar Dominguez.

The Mabees campaigned Souvenir Copy, who won 4 of 12 starts and $540,196. A freshman stallion, the 7-year-old Souvenir Copy also won the 1997 Norfolk Stakes at Oak Tree at Santa Anita and the 1998 Derby Trial Stakes at Churchill Downs. He stands at Hopewell Farm in Kentucky.