04/16/2004 12:00AM

Domestic help for San Juan


ARCADIA, Calif. - After 50 runnings down Santa Anita's winding hillside course, while racking up nearly 88 miles worth of priceless memories, you would think the San Juan Capistrano would get a little respect.

Think again.

After being devalued in the eyes of the Graded Stakes Committee of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, from a magical "1" to a more sober "2," the venerable San Juan also suffered a 25 percent purse cut this year, dropping from its competitive $400,000 to a more pedestrian $250,000.

As a result, the San Juan no longer enjoys its bygone status as California's premiere grass race. In fact, it looks pretty much like its 12-furlong Santa Anita sisters - the San Luis Obispo Handicap and the San Luis Rey Handicap - and it is now being squeezed on the calendar by the proximity of the $350,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at Hollywood Park, which dips into the same pool of long-distance runners just three weeks after the San Juan.

Fifty years ago, when Santa Anita's turf course was unveiled, the San Juan Capistrano stood as its crowning jewel. That first year it was run at 1 1/2 miles and went to By Zeus, trained by Buddy Hirsch and ridden by Ray York, who did 110 pounds to beat Rejected, carrying 126.

The following year, the San Juan was stretched to the full 14-furlong length of the hillside-infield course. St. Vincent won for Vance and John Longden, defeating Determine, winner of the Kentucky Derby the previous year.

By now, every loyal Santa Anita fan has his or her favorite San Juan moment. Bill Shoemaker's front-running miracle aboard the miler Olden Times capped the 1962 season. Johnny Longden, at the age of 59, said farewell to riding with his operatic victory of 1966 on George Royal. And few races rank higher on the thrill scale than the Quicken Tree-Fiddle Isle dead heat in the 1970 San Juan. Third-place Fort Marcy was beaten a nose.

There was the brace of grays - La Zanzara and One on the Aisle - beating muscular fields in 1975 and 1976. Perrault, as good as he was, withered behind the scorched earth of Lemhi Gold in 1982, while Great Communicator began his blue-collar campaign in the 1988 San Juan, not content until he had won the Breeders' Cup Turf.

In the last dozen years, the San Juan has been won by a Horse of the Year (Kotashaan), an Arlington Million hero (Marlin), a brilliant father and son (Bien Bien and Bienemado) and horses owned by such international stables as Godolphin, Robert Sangster, Juddmonte Farms, and Gary Tanaka.

Apparently, then, the San Juan is still a race worth winning, even though the winners are considered dinosaurs and throwbacks, refugees from an era than no longer pertains. In order to present such an odd diversion, an American racetrack like Santa Anita usually must turn to European breeding and racing for its cast. The field is regularly filled with the abbreviations of England, Ireland, France and South America . . . but not this year.

This year, five of the nine San Juan starters were born in the U.S.A., including All the Boys, who finished second in the 2003 San Juan, and Ringaskiddy, who won the race in 2002. Runaway Dancer and Special Matter represent the last two winners of the Carleton F. Burke Handicap, over the same course and most of the distance, while White Buck beat All the Boys on the grass here earlier in the meet.

They will have their work cut out to handle the English 6-year-old Meteor Storm, who came flying at the end of the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Rey to take the day. But funny things happen at 14 furlongs, when Thoroughbreds need to draw on the very depths of both conditioning and heritage.

"The San Juan's certainly not the race it was," said Dan Hendricks, who trains Runaway Dancer. "There was a time it ranked right there behind the Santa Anita Handicap in terms of prestige. Now, it kind of looks like just another race - but not to me. I'd love to win it."

Runaway Dancer is just the kind of reliable soldier who wins recent San Juans. He finished in the cluster at the end of the 1 1/2-mile Hollywood Turf Cup last December, and he was beaten less than two lengths by Meteor Storm when he was fourth in the San Luis Rey.

"He's always coming with his run," Hendricks added. "Going that far, it comes down to pace, and getting a little lucky with the trip. And then you've got to have the horse who can get a mile and three-quarters."

So hats off to Reyla Graber, who bred Runaway Dancer in Kentucky. Congratulations to Dr. and Mrs. Cornelius Link, who bred White Buck in Florida, and to Frank Hopkins, who bred All the Boys in Maryland. A toast to Barbara Walter, who bred Ringaskiddy in northern California with her late husband, Robert. And thank you Penny Lewis for bringing Florida-bred Special Matter into this world. It's nice to know there are people still in the breeding business for the long run.