04/04/2002 12:00AM

Fonz's hated track at Santa Anita - so hello, Illinois Derby

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CHICAGO - Someone once said one definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and continually expecting to get different results. David LaCroix did not become a successful horseman by doing stupid things.

Fonz's twice has signaled to LaCroix that he doesn't relish running over the track surface at Santa Anita, and that's reason enough for LaCroix to redirect his Kentucky Derby hopeful from Saturday's Santa Anita Derby to the Illinois Derby, where he'll probably be the second choice behind Repent.

"I'd love to run in my own backyard," said LaCroix, who is based at Hollywood Park. "But he's not handling that track. There's no sense in going over there and getting slugged in the face again."

Fonz's finished second to Siphonic in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity in his final start as a 2-year-old, but he took a step backward in his first 3-year-old race, finishing fifth in the San Rafael Stakes March 2 at Santa Anita. Then, after turning in a strong work at Hollywood Park, Fonz's shipped across town to Santa Anita and struggled with the track again. "He just didn't work very well," LaCroix said.

That's when LaCroix turned his attention to the Illinois Derby, in which Fonz's co-owner, Meadowbrook Farms, has twice finished second. Meadowbrook also owns a quarter of Fonz's sire, Out of Place, which is one reason LaCroix took note of Fonz's when he was sold at a Florida auction as a yearling.

LaCroix looked at Fonz's and wrote "$50,000" in his sales catalog, the price he expected Fonz's to bring. When bidding on the horse stalled early, LaCroix became suspicious, but LaCroix still wound up buying Fonz's for $10,500, figuring he was worth that risk. "Then I went back and asked what was wrong with him," he said.

Fonz's had problems in his hind ankles, but with rest and treatment, he steadily improved. "We got lucky," LaCroix said. "He grew out of it."

LaCroix was ready to sell Fonz's for $350,000 after the gelding won his career debut by four lengths last spring at Hollywood before Fonz's failed to pass a veterinary examination. But if Fonz's wins Saturday, he'll have earned substantially more than that amount and will probably get a chance to run in the Kentucky Derby.

Said LaCroix, "Normally I sell my horses, but I thought maybe this one would be my chance to go down the Derby trail."

Publication puzzles his trainer

If someone can explain to trainer Terry Knight what happened to Publication in the Louisiana Derby, he'd be happy to listen. "I wish I had anything to go on at all," Knight said.

Publication, a close fourth last fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, started his 3-year-old season on a sour note with a dull seventh-place finish last month in the Louisiana Derby. Knight had shipped him to Fair Grounds from his Bay Meadows base the week of the race expecting to saddle a contender.

Now, when Publication starts Saturday in the Illinois Derby, he has no idea what to expect.

"He certainly trained exceptional before his last race," Knight said. "But he was never a factor. He cooled out in about 10 minutes," suggesting Publication expended little effort during the race.

"We went to the extent of sending him to a clinic for a complete nuclear scan, but there was nothing conclusive," Knight said. "It's either try him again or stop on him, and I didn't see any reason to do that."

Publication traveled to Chicago last year, winning the Arlington-Washington Futurity by a neck in only the second start of his career. A month later he was beaten about three lengths at 103-1 in the Breeders' Cup. Randy Meier, who rode Publication at Arlington and was aboard for his only work since the Louisiana Derby, has the mount.

Cashel Castle primed for Lafayette

Cashel Castle had his final work Wednesday for Sunday's Lafayette Stakes at Keeneland, breezing a half-mile at Hawthorne in about 49 seconds. "He went nice and smooth," said trainer Chris Block.

The 3-year-old is 4 for 4 in his career, and has won all his races easily. But his connections are not entertaining Kentucky Derby dreams. The seven-furlong Lafayette, Block said, should set Cashel Castle up nicely for a race like the one-mile Derby Trial.

Block told Cashel Castle's owners over the winter that the colt couldn't miss a beat if he were to have any chance of making the Derby. Block's plan was to run in the seven-furlong Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream, then try two turns in the Tampa Bay Derby and evaluate his colt's route ability. But when Cashel Castle suffered a minor injury and missed the Hutcheson, the plan fell apart.

Now, Block hopes to develop a top-class middle-distance horse that won't be worn down by the rigors of Triple Crown racing. "He does everything the right way," Block said.