04/03/2002 12:00AM

Easy Grades scoring big


ARCADIA, Calif. - A year ago, it seemed impossible that would be a candidate in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby. He was more likely a candidate for an equine nuthouse.

From the time that trainer Ted H. West and his father, Ted, first saw Easy Grades at the 2001 Barretts March sale, the colt grabbed their attention. Especially when he dropped his rider in a workout.

"We bought him cheap because he put on a show during the preview," Ted West said. "He threw the rider and ran around the racetrack and did some stupid stuff. That was the only horse we bought. The colt kind of caught our eye."

The Wests and their client Scott Guenther landed the colt for only $30,000.

The incident at the sale was the start of a strange 12 months for Easy Grades.

"When we got him back to the barn after the sale, they said he'd be a good horse if you gelded him," Ted H. West said. "We tried to train him without gelding him and it lasted about a week. He was rank, refused to train, and fought the rider. He was a rogue."

The change in Easy Grades after he was gelded surprised Ted H. West. "He was about as big of a turnaround for a gelding as you'll see," he said. "He's improving by leaps and bounds."

Easy Grades has one victory in four starts, each at this Santa Anita meeting, as well as a creditable second to Santa Anita Derby favorite Came Home in the Grade 2 San Rafael Stakes on March 2.

After finishing sixth in a maiden race on Dec. 26, he was a convincing three-length winner of a one-mile maiden race on turf on Jan. 17 under Eddie Delahoussaye.

On Feb. 10, he finished second in a one-mile allowance race on turf, leading by 1 1/2 lengths in early stretch before losing by a nose under Delahoussaye." He was a little green," Ted H. West said. "Eddie said that it wouldn't happen again."

Easy Grades showed improvement in the San Rafael Stakes, closing ground through the final furlong to finish three lengths behind Came Home.

"From where he was at that stage, I thought it was a good race," Ted H. West said. "He was getting better but physically he just wasn't there. His coat didn't look good and his weight wasn't where we wanted it. Now, everything has come together at the right time."

Easy Grades is the first Santa Anita Derby starter for Ted H. West, 28, who has trained a stable since 1999. The elder West, 65, has been a fixture at Santa Anita for years. He trained Interco, the winner of the 1984 Santa Anita Handicap.

When Ted West served a suspension for clenbuterol use in 1999, he put the stable in his son's name. The change became permanent when the suspension ended.

"I think it's a young man's business," the father said. "I've had a half dozen people come to me in the last year and say, 'I thought you were retired' because my name is not in the program. I'm not doing anything different now than I was 20 years ago."

Both father and son are at the barn every morning, and they confer on stable decisions. And they agree that the Santa Anita Derby is the ideal spot for Easy Grades.

"I'm hoping he can beat all of them," Ted H. West said. "He's training great. I think he's improving."

Gary Stevens will ride Easy Grades in the Santa Anita Derby. Stevens has won the Santa Anita Derby eight times, and is tied for the all-time lead in wins in the race with Bill Shoemaker.

"He's won more Santa Anita Derbies than anyone around here," Ted H. West said. "That's good enough for me."

Stevens rides a gelding who, a year after the sale, can still be difficult.

Recently, Mary Ellen West, Ted H.'s mother, was treating Easy Grades in his stall when he pinned her in a corner. It took quick-thinking stable staff to avoid a potential accident.

"She was giving him some medicine and he wheeled on her," Ted H. West said.

"She didn't get knocked down. I've been in that situation before. It's scary. He's not a pet."

Maybe not, but he is a Triple Crown contender.