10/11/2004 11:00PM

The feel-good story of the year


ARCADIA, Calif. - It's not easy being a Californian these days. Oh sure, there's always the movie stars and the coast line, mega-malls and miles of scenic highway. For a while, there was even a couple of baseball teams to follow, but now the game has returned to Houston, where it truly belongs.

For the most part, California is being marginalized as a traffic-clogged real estate bubble that has no more in common with the middle American mainstream than the Goat People of Tierra del Fuego. California's earthquakes are mocked as geological dope-slaps, while the state's benign weather patterns are considered nothing less than payoffs in a deal cut with Satan.

Even with its 55 presidential electoral votes - by far the campaign's biggest prize - California is being utterly ignored on the political scene, which is strange, because everybody wants to meet the governor and his Native American friends. The lone major national candidate heading this way is Sen. John Edwards, and that's only because he's coming to Burbank to trade hair care tips with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show."

The good citizens of California's racing industry are not immune to such symptoms of isolation. When the Breeders' Cup came to California in 2003 it was after an absence of six years, as if the state had emerged from some kind of probation. Four of the major racing facilities are owned by out-of-state corporations, a body blow to the historical ego. And then there is the issue of slots, and the undeniable perception that California racing is being left far, far behind.

But guess what? All is not lost, at least as long as there is a California Cup to celebrate. Since 1990, the day-long tribute to the homegrown Thoroughbreds of the Golden State has flourished under the twin sponsorship of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association and the Oak Tree Racing Association.

On Saturday at Santa Anita they will be at it again, with 10 races worth more than $1.3 million. Last year's Cal Cup was somewhat overshadowed by the looming presence of the Breeders' Cup. This year, Cal Cup has the stage to itself, and there are plenty of reasons to step up and enjoy the day. Here are five of them:

No. 1 - John, Paul, George, and Ringo ringers. The theme of the traditional Cal Cup infield tent party will be "The Swinging '60s," complete with the Fab Faux, a Beatles tribute group that apparently has a loyal following. Yellow submarine rides will be offered, and the decor, no doubt, will include tangerine trees and cellophane flowers of yellow and green, with a huge buffet that will include a selection of marshmallow pies.

Also, there will be Laker Girls, but not the ones from the 60's.

No. 2 - At $250,000, the California Cup Classic does not have the heavyweight purse of the Sunshine Millions, but it does have a rich history and the promise of another competitive running. The Classic has been won by such real-world stars as Best Pal, Budroyale, and Sky Jack, Cal-breds who proved themselves worthy of the national stage. Former champions Tizbud and Calkins Road lead the Classic field this year, both of them trying to become the first ever two-time winner of the 1 1/8-mile event.

No. 3 - Not jazzed by faux Beatles? How about real four-wheeled beetles of the Volkswagen variety. Bugstock II, sponsored by oldies radio station K-EARTH 101, will occupy the eastern end of the infield, where the first 101 old-school VW bugs to show up will be allowed to park and preen all day. Their patron saint, Herbie the Wonder Beetle, aka The Love Bug, will be there on loan from the Dean Jones/Michelle Lee vault at Disney Studios. In addition, there will be an opportunity for children to pet the hamsters that power the engines.

No. 4 - Sponsorship, a rare sighting these days, is in full bloom at the California Cup. The Classic lost its Wells Fargo Bank connection a couple of years ago, but John Deere, Budweiser, Foothill Beverage, TVG, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and the California Thoroughbred Trainers still have their logos attached to Cal Cup events.

There are also races named for the late industry giants John Mabee and Robert Walter, as well as the very much alive Donald Valpredo, one of the Cal Cup founders.

No. 5 - Unless you count USC football, the Cal Cup is the only big-league game in town on Saturday. Chavez Ravine has been shuttered. Edison Field is draped in black crepe. UCLA is taking its show on the road to Berkeley. And at last report, neither the L.A. Raiders nor the L.A. Rams were scheduled.

For those old-fashioned souls who still feed off the energy of a good-sized crowd at a racetrack, Cal Cup Day is the last significant racing festival of the season, providing remarkably full fields and a guaranteed $1 million pick six. It is a perfectly good excuse to feel - at least for a day - that California racing might be doing okay.