03/28/2002 12:00AM

He knows his daily doubles


ARCADIA, Calif. - Horse racing and Alex Trebek could be the perfect fit. The sport is a puzzle, and the higher you go, the more difficult the challenge. Then, at the end of the day, the answers always seem to come in the form of another question.

As the impresario of the long-running "Jeopardy!" game show, Trebek has become familiar to millions of viewers as a man who can make even a dumb guess sound like a noble attempt at intellectual endeavor. His solicitous "No, sorry" soothes even the most badly bruised ego.

It is to Trebek's credit, therefore, that he has put his own name on the line in a business as tough as Thoroughbred racing and breeding, where even the best jockeys and trainers get it wrong four out of five times.

"Horses are like people," said Trebek, who has owned Creston Farms in central California since 1996. "They have good days and bad days. When a heavy favorite for the Kentucky Derby can run badly, anything can happen."

Trebek will be counting on the unpredictable Saturday when Reba's Gold carries his Creston colors in the Potrero Grande Handicap at Santa Anita. The opposition will include such hardened stakes campaigners as Kolookan Queen and Elaborate. But if the race comes down to sheer grit, Reba's Gold figures to be in the thick of the mix.

"Reba's a neat horse, with a lot of heart," Trebek said. "I remember a commentator once saying that he always gives the two-dollar bettor an honest run for his money. He's a solid horse - a grinder. He gets out there and just does his job."

If his last two races are any indication, Reba's Gold is sitting on a breakthrough performance. On Feb. 9, he beat Sky Jack a nose in the most exciting mile of the Santa Anita meet. Then on March 9, Reba's Gold lost the Tokyo City Handicap by a head to Bosque Redondo, going another fast mile.

The Potrero Grande is run at 6 1/2 furlongs, and attractive enough to be won in the past by sprint champions Chinook Pass, Gulch, Lit de Justice and Kona Gold. Both Reba's Gold and Trebek will be making their graded stakes debuts.

"He's won sprinting before," said trainer Dan Hendricks, "and there's plenty of speed in there to maybe set things up."

Hendricks liked Reba's Gold from the first time he saw him, at the Barretts sale of 2-year-olds in training back in March of 1999.

"I kept going back and looking at him," Hendricks said. "I didn't really have a buyer for him, and he toed in pretty good, so I ended up passing on him." Creston Farms manager Art Mercado bought the young Reba's Gold for $125,000.

"I regretted it," Hendricks added, "until one day Creston hired me and sent me the horse. Then, as soon as he started developing and getting his chest muscles, he went from a 900-pound weakling to a 1,200-pound monster in a couple of years. All that growth just kind of pulled his front legs straight, so he's barely pigeon-toed now."

Reba's Gold is by Slew o' Gold out of the Herat mare Lovely Reba. That means, as a grandson of Seattle Slew and great-grandson of Northern Dancer, he's got good blood to burn. In his first race as a 3-year-old, in January of 2000, Reba's Gold was classy enough to run second to War Chant in a Santa Anita allowance race - the same War Chant who went on to win the Breeders' Cup Mile at the end of the year.

Reba's Gold had to watch from the sidelines. After finishing second to War Chant, he needed a bone chip removed from a hind ankle. Surgery was performed by Dr. Wayne McIllwraith at his Los Alamitos clinic, and Reba's Gold spent the next six months in rehabilitation at Creston before returning to Hendricks' care.

"We had him on our Aquatred for a half-hour a day until he could go back to the track," Trebek said. "You can see how well he's come back. Now the goal is to win a couple of graded stakes with him. I'd love to stand at our place."

Right now, Reba's Gold represents the entire Trebek racing stable. The best of Trebek's homebreds have gone to market - Sheikh Mohammed and Coolmore have been buyers - and he has trod conservatively with his purchases. A daughter of Thunder Gulch will be joining the Hendricks stable soon.

"I don't know how long we're supposed to go before we show a profit," Trebek observed. "We haven't been 100 percent lucky with all our horses, but you takes your chances in this business. When I visited Three Chimneys in Kentucky, Bob [owner Robert Clay] told me that if I was going to do it right, it would take time.

"We're not about to try to do something that might cause a horse some grief - push him too fast or too far," Trebek added. "We're trying to manage our entity in the right way, keeping in mind a concern for the well-being of the horse. Doing it that way, success doesn't come overnight."