08/22/2003 12:00AM

Hoping the ride doesn't end


DEL MAR, Calif. - The trainer, orphaned at a young age, is a man of few words, but one who communicates with horses so well they have put him in the Hall of Fame. The owner, a successful businessman, has longed to win Del Mar's major race, the Pacific Classic, which is run only a few miles from the home he shares with his wife in Rancho Santa Fe. The jockey, who has overcome the built-in prejudices and chauvinism of the sport to become the lone woman in the Hall of Fame, has returned gallantly from a fractured back suffered earlier this year.

And then there is the horse who has brought them all together, an unlikely hero from the pampas of Argentina, rapidly becoming one of the most popular runners on the West Coast.

On Sunday, Ron McAnally, Sid and Jenny Craig, Julie Krone, and the unbeaten Candy Ride will try for their own summer hit, in Del Mar's $1 million Pacific Classic, in which Candy Ride will be one of the top two choices, along with Medaglia d'Oro.

A victory would provide a moving, stirring denouement to this story. McAnally, Del Mar's winningest trainer of all time, has never won the Pacific Classic. The Craigs have made the Pacific Classic a greater quest than the Kentucky Derby. Krone is seeking her biggest victory since coming out of retirement last fall. And Candy Ride is seeking to put himself squarely atop the list of the nation's leading older runners.

"The Pacific Classic is the one race the Craigs would love to win, because all their friends are here," McAnally said. "When I first saw a tape of Candy Ride, I told Sid, 'I think I found a horse for the Pacific Classic.' "

That was in January. McAnally has purchased and developed several top-class runners from South America - most notably Breeders' Cup Distaff winners Bayakoa and Paseana - and regularly receives tapes of up-and-coming runners from there. "On the tape, his action was flawless. He just glides along," McAnally said. He flew to Argentina and watched Candy Ride train. "He was getting ready to run a mile and a quarter," McAnally said. "His trainer worked him a mile and a quarter. I mean, he never stopped. He just kept going and going. I thought he was something special."

Candy Ride never ran in that scheduled 1 1/4-mile race. Instead, the Craigs, owners of Jenny's eponymous weight-loss centers, paid $900,000 to acquire Candy Ride immediately and bring him to the United States. Since then, he has won twice in this country. He has now won five times - though McAnally said it is his understanding Candy Ride ran once in an unrecognized race in Argentina at a so-called bush track - and McAnally's opinion of the 4-year-old colt has only grown.

"I've had Ron for over 25 years as a trainer," Sid Craig said. "I usually have to call him. He's not a strongly communicative guy. With this horse, he calls me all the time. I've never seen him so excited about a horse."

The Craigs are excited, too. But they are trying hard to temper their prerace enthusiasm. The Craigs invited friends for a postrace party at their home in 1992, the year their mare Paseana ran against males in the Pacific Classic. She finished fifth. There was not much to celebrate.

They waited until 1996 to throw another Pacific Classic party. Their friends Allen and Madeleine Paulson, who had a home in Rancho Santa Fe, had a horse running in the race. The Craigs thought they would play party host, so the Paulsons could enjoy the day. A few hours before the party, Cigar's 16-race winning streak came to an end.

Krone, who is second in the jockey standings at Del Mar this summer, is the latest to join the team. She picked up the mount this week because Gary Stevens, who was scheduled to ride Candy Ride, was injured in last Saturday's Arlington Million. Krone called the Craigs at home to lobby for the mount. "I said, 'Please, please, put me on your horse,' " she said.

When McAnally called Krone Wednesday morning to tell her she had the mount, "I was flattered and felt fortunate," Krone said.

"This horse doesn't need an aggressive rider," McAnally said. "She's a good thinker. I have total confidence in her, and the horse. She's a great rider. She's proven herself many, many times. That's why she's in the Hall of Fame."

Krone planned on going to Stevens's Del Mar home on Friday night to watch tapes of Candy Ride's races, and to discuss Candy Ride's idiosyncrasies with Stevens.

"You can never have enough information," Krone said. "You want it stored away, so you can do something instinctive, even if it's not instinctive."

Getting instructions from an injured jockey on the eve of a big race? Sounds like this story might have a Hollywood ending, too.