04/17/2002 12:00AM

'Demolition Derby' memories


ARCADIA, Calif. - It has been nearly two weeks now since the Santa Anita Derby was run, and I keep hearing these sarcastic cracks about how long it took Came Home to come home, and how the race could have been clocked with an egg timer, and how it was the slowest running since the version won by Candy Spots, way back in 1963.

That's enough. I will tolerate no more dumping on Candy Spots.

Students of time need to go back to class. If all they look at is a sad little number printed in 8-point type on a faded yellow chart page, then they deserve to wallow in their ignorance.

Anyone who gets a rush from watching the clock must, by logical extension, hold Monarchos dear as the second greatest Kentucky Derby winner of all time. Right.

Candy Spots won the 1963 Santa Anita Derby by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:50.20 for 1 1/8 miles on a fast track.

Came Home shaded that, but not by much. Like Came Home, Candy Spots was a brilliant 2-year-old who did not win beyond seven furlongs until he turned 3. For Candy Spots, the Santa Anita Derby was his fifth victory without a defeat. Came Home has won 6 of 7.

There are many things that determine a final time, beyond the intrinsic speed of a racehorse. Pace is a key. So is the condition of the track surface, along with the quality of its maintenance, as well as such factors as wind and rain.

Oh, yes. Final time also can be affected by a four-horse pile-up at the front of the field going into the first turn.

Candy Spots did not simply win the 1963 Santa Anita Derby. He survived it. Ben-Hur had a better trip. There are a lot of guys still around who rode in the "Demolition Derby" - among them Bill Shoemaker, Don Pierce, Johnny Longden, and Braulio Baeza - but they stayed afloat. Pete Moreno wasn't that lucky.

Moreno was riding Doolin Point, third choice to Shoemaker and Candy Spots. Moreno had no delusions. "Candy Spots was a big, beautiful looking horse," he recalled. "But my colt came on late, so I thought I might have a chance."

At the age of 75, retired from a career as a racing official and living with his wife, Janice, in Palm Springs, Moreno's memory is still sharp enough to take us around that terrible first turn, beginning with the start, when Longden sent Might and Main right to the lead from post position 13.

"I don't know if you're old enough to remember his style of riding, but John would go to the lead, take a hold and suck back to slow the pace down," Moreno began.

"Going into the turn, Baeza [on Sky Gem] ran in behind Longden. But it looked like he couldn't hold his horse, so he wheeled out. As Baeza came out, Milo Valenzuela [on Win-Em-All] clipped his heels and was the first to go down.

"After that, it was Rudy Campas [on Denodado] who went down, and I fell over the two of them. We went down like a stack of checkers. And that's the last thing I remember."

Eddie Burns also hit the deck with Royal Tower, while the rest of the field dodged fallen bodies. When the dust had cleared, the scene was bleak - four horses and four riders strewn across the track, looking like the battlefield at Agincourt.

Valenzuela was hospitalized. Denodado had to be euthanized, with a pistol, no less. Moreno, cut and bruised, was too groggy to remember the shot.

"They told me that the first thing I said was, '?Is my brother okay?' I knew Henry was somewhere behind me."

Henry Moreno, five years younger than Pete and riding Tourlourou, was fine. In fact, Shoemaker gives Henry the credit for nudging him out of harm's way.

"I was coming up behind all those horses going down when Henry came out and bumped me just enough to miss them," Shoemaker said. "Everybody was taking up. I ended up eight or nine wide around the first turn."

Thirteen horses started in the 1963 Santa Anita Derby.

Only nine finished. Moreno recalls the pall that settled over the local racing community.

"It was a lot different then," said Moreno. "We were gypsies, like family, and spent a lot of time together.

"The night of the derby, Charlie Comiskey gave a party, and everybody was invited. I was there, all bandaged up, then somebody walked in and said, 'Milo just died.' Talk about devastated. We were all in shock."

Moreno jumped in his car and rushed to the hospital.

"Milo's wife, Rosa, was sitting there in tears," Moreno said. "But it was a false alarm. Somebody had started the rumor."

After what happened, the rumor wasn't hard to believe.

Charles Hatton, in his report on the Santa Anita Derby for the 1964 American Racing Manual, described the race as a "boscoulade" (an accident caused by itself) and dismissed the final time as "virtually meaningless in light of the distressing tangent the race took on the first turn."

So say what you want about Came Home. But lay off Candy Spots.