02/18/2008 1:00AM

He rebuilt his barn by making shrewd claims

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Expectations are modest when a trainer is forced to rebuild his stable. That was the challenge Rafael Becerra faced in 2007, when his biggest client, Stan Fulton, disbanded his entire racing stable.

"It hurt," Becerra said, "but you still keep going."

Fulton was the first owner to provide Becerra with six-figure auction purchases and well-bred prospects. At one point, Becerra trained two dozen for Fulton, including stakes winners Roll Hennessy Roll, Uncle Denny, Crackup, and St Averil. Top-class horses are not easily replaced.

Becerra, 53, marched on. Supported by his main owner, K.K. Sangara, Becerra continued to actively claim, and by the end of the so-called rebuilding year, Becerra somehow had achieved the best season of his career. His runners won 48 races and $2.2 million, career highs for Becerra.

The resurrection was not surprising. Becerra was a longtime assistant to trainer Gary Jones before going on his own, and earned a reputation among horseplayers as one of the most underrated trainers in Southern California. And horses last for Becerra. He managed the gelding Kingdom Found to a Grade 2 victory at age 7. One of his early claims was $12,500 Special Matter; he later won a Grade 3 and more than $500,000.

So when Fulton left, Becerra went back to what he does best - claim and develop. Celtic Dreamin was claimed for $40,000 from his career debut by Becerra and Sangara; since then the gelding has earned more than $500,000 and will be live when he starts March 1 in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Getback Time became a stakes winner and earned more than $350,000 after a $40,000 claim from a maiden race. Rudeameanie has won two races and $52,000 since being claimed from a $25,000 maiden claimer. None of them was perfect, which is probably why they were in for a tag.

"When you're in the claiming business, you're going to have problems," Becerra said. "As long as the problems don't get real bad, you can work with them. If I claim them and don't see any improvement, I run them back at the same level."

Becerra, who had 48 horses in training as of mid-February, is assisted by his 26-year-old son, Rafael Jr. And soon, Becerra expects to break out of the winter doldrums. He has had a fair share of bad luck recently.

Rudeameanie got loose twice in the post parade, and was scratched. Kiss My Crown stumbled badly at the break Feb. 14, and ran last. Orientate Slew, purchased by Sangara from the Fulton dispersal, clipped heels and nearly fell Feb. 15 in a maiden race.

Becerra chalks it up to bad racing luck.

"There's not much you can do," he said. "You can't change anything, you just do what you think is right, and hopefully things will turn around."

They usually do turn around for Becerra, whose winter win rate (4 for 37) is partly offset by high win payoffs. Moujane ($18.20) won her comeback Feb. 13, her first start for Becerra; Bold Cleo ($13.40) won Jan. 31, first off the claim; Lucky Honey ($18.40) won Jan.o11 with a rider switch.

Becerra is deadly first off the claim, winning at 27 percent (33 for 123) the past five years and producing a $2.14 return for each $2 win bet. Still, Becerra said the shrinking talent pool has made it difficult to find claims. Becerra has been out-shaken for six horses this winter. His only claim was Threat, a troubled third in her Feb. 20 debut.

Among the 12 horses that Becerra trains for Sangara, a businessman from Vancouver, B.C., is the best horse in the stable. Celtic Dreamin provided Becerra with a lift when he finished second Jan. 26 in the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic.

"Money-wise, it's like you won a half-million race," he said.

Celtic Dreamin will be an outsider in the Big Cap, though he has finished first or second in all nine of his starts.

And win or lose, Becerra said, "You can't look back. I know we have downs. But when you win a race, it patches everything, and you come around again. We want to win at least one race for each owner, each meet; that would be okay."