05/01/2006 12:00AM

Golden State hasn't always shined

Email

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Oh terrible fates, it's happening again. Prepare the sackcloth and ashes. Brace for bitter disappointment. In case you haven't heard, fellow Californians, another one of those bright and shining sons of the Golden State is on the grounds at Churchill Downs, flaunting his West Coast r?sum? and acting as if he might have something to do with the outcome of the 132nd Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

This time around, the name of the heartbreaker is Brother Derek, winner of everything in sight at Santa Anita this winter, not to mention a handsome pair of two-turn races last year at age 2. On paper - and in his case it is heavy-stock, watermarked bond - Brother D. looks to be the real thing, ready, willing and able to follow in the footsteps of . . .

This is where it gets depressing.

California has been part of these United States since 1848. The state's first racetrack was Pioneer Race Course in San Francisco, which opened in 1851. By the time the first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875, California already was establishing a robust breeding industry, led by business titans Theodore Winters and Adolph Spreckels. In 1922, when the California-bred Morvich won the 48th running of the Kentucky Derby, it appeared as if colts spawned in the West would continue to play a significant role. Little did they know.

As it turned out, the (CA) breeding designation attached to California's homegrown Kentucky Derby participants came to stand for "calamitous," "catastrophic" or just plain "can't." For those of us keeping score, the game so far stands at California 3, the rest of the known Thoroughbred world 128.

This makes no sense at all. If California ballclubs can win the World Series (10 in the last 50 years), its horses ought to be batting better than .023 in the Kentucky Derby.

If state boosters can walk around bragging about having the world's sixth-largest economy, then producing the second- or third-largest Thoroughbred foal crop in the country should have resulted in a few more Derby winners by now, if only by accident.

And if breeding means anything at all, then Californians have absolutely no excuse based upon access to the finest lines available anywhere, with the Cal-bred designation simple to fulfill.

Theories abound. It's the water, it's the air, it's the California racetracks - all of them, as the legend goes, built downhill on concrete.

After Morvich won there was a dramatic pause - okay, 33 years - before the California-bred Swaps handed Nashua his hat in the Derby of 1955.

In 1958, California's exciting Silky Sullivan finished up the track in Louisville, cueing a chorus of "I told you so" from Kentucky's hardboot crowd. Four years later, Decidedly came through for George A. Pope Jr., and suddenly California wasn't so funny anymore, especially when the West's unlucky Candy Spots should have won the Derby in 1963.

The nightmare, though, had only begun. Since Decidedly's Derby, Ruken, Flying Paster, and Snow Chief came roaring out of California, only to go quietly in Kentucky. Cal-breds Rumbo and Jaklin Klugman would have finished one-two in the 1980 Derby if it hadn't been for Genuine Risk. Golden Act, Free House, and Indian Charlie each finished third, while Best Pal was a brave second to Strike the Gold.

Ten years ago, it was only Grindstone's flared left nostril that kept the California-bred gelding Cavonnier from winning the 122nd Kentucky Derby, in what is considered the closest finish in the history of America's most famous race. Instead, a Cal-bred once again went home empty, while Kentucky chalked up another one.

Ten years later, Cavonnier could care less. At home in the wine country of Sonoma County, at the Vine Hill Ranch built by Bob and Barbara Walter, the old boy is healthy, happy and king of the roost.

"He's in a field with four yearling colts," said Barbara Walter, who has run Vine Hill since the death of her husband, three years ago this coming Sunday. "When the young ones start rowdying around, he stands off to the side and watches until he thinks it's gone too far. That's when he steps in and breaks it up.

"Then, when I go out to feed him carrots, he won't let them get anywhere near me," Walter added. "I'd love to think it's me, but I know it's the carrots."

Cavonnier was raised on the hilly slopes of Vine Hill and trained as a youngster on a rising gallop that just as easily might have been found in places like England and Ireland. It was definitely different from conventional flat-track California schooling. And who's to argue? It almost worked.

Brother Derek's formative years were even more exotic. In fact, in terms of the Derby, he could geographically distance himself from the historic curse of his California roots. Although conceived and foaled in the Santa Ynez Valley, he was raised in Oregon, sold in Kentucky, and then trained for resale in Utah before being purchased back in California as a 2-year-old by Cecil Peacock, an oilman from Canada.

So if Brother Derek wins, California breeding will get the credit. But just like most Californians, he owes a lot to the interstate highway system.