12/18/2003 1:00AM

Horatio Alger would be proud


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Believe it or not, the Hollywood Futurity used to be a million-dollar race. That was way back when, during the wild and booming Eighties, an age of rampant excess and flagrant wealth that sometimes even trickled down to such Futurity winning owners as John C. Mabee, W.T. Young, Robert French, and Henryk de Kwiatkowski.

Since 1991, however, when the added-money for the Futurity was sliced in half, the race has dwindled steadily in value. What began as the jewel of the California fall campaign - a true valedictory for the best of the Western 2-year-olds - is now little more than the Iowa caucus of Triple Crown preps, offering just $200,000 in added money.

By contrast, the trajectory of the life of Thoroughbred owner Ron Waranch has been a rags-to-riches upward spiral. From his Depression-era youth in the Texas gulf coast town of Corpus Cristi, to his service with the Marines in Korea, to the founding of his Villa Pacific Building Company in Palm Desert, Waranch has lived a piece of the American dream straight out of the Horatio Alger legend - which is probably why the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans elected Waranch to their membership earlier this year.

Waranch and the Hollywood Futurity will intersect for the first time on Saturday when two-time sprint winner Saint Afleet carries his colors in the 1 1/16-mile main track test for trainer Craig Dollase. A small field is forming, topped by the impressive Hollywood Prevue winner Lion Heart, but Waranch has high expectations for his colt, most of them supplied by Wynn Jolley, the man who gave Saint Afleet his early lessons in Florida.

"Wynn thinks he's the best horse he's ever raised and broke," Waranch said from his home in Rancho Santa Fe. "And he's produced an awful lot of good horses there in Ocala, at his Mar-Wynn Farm. Both Wynn and Craig think he'll run all day, and I'd have to agree with them. When he's come back to the winner's circle in his last two races, his breath couldn't blow out a candle."

A truly run Hollywood Futurity has sorted out a lot of good colts in recent years. Toccet, for all his subsequent adventures, was a thoroughly classy winner last year over Kafwain, while such relatively recent winners as Point Given, Captain Steve, Real Quiet, and Afternoon Deelites have helped maintain the race's aura of a legitimate classic indicator.

"The Futurity will be a tell-tale race for us," Waranch said. "We haven't got a lot of plans after that, although we are thinking about going down the Triple Crown trail through the Arkansas program."

Waranch has been to the Kentucky Derby once before, in 2000, with the longshot Ronton. He beat one horse and came out of the race with an injury.

Of course, it takes a lot more than that to discourage a member of the Horatio Alger Association, which recognizes American leaders who have become role models in a variety of fields while "overcoming humble beginnings." The association sponsors scholarships of more than $4 million annually to high school seniors, as well as offering a network of mentoring programs.

Upon his induction last April, Waranch joined a roll of Horatio Alger honorees that includes the likes of Henry Aaron, Bernard Baruch, Ronald Reagan, Johnny Cash, and Carol Burnett. Such noted racehorse owners and breeders as Allen Paulson and John C. Galbreath are also on the list. Still, for all of his success and recognition, Waranch was not quite prepared for the humbling experience of the fledgling Thoroughbred owner.

After a winning fling as a partner with a small piece of a cheap horse, Waranch jumped into the Thoroughbred business in the early 1980's. He looks back on those days, amazed he survived to tell the tale.

"I had no trainer," Waranch said. "In fact, I had no idea about horses. So I bought three. Naturally, none of them were any good. I did that for a few more years before I finally realized how complex this business is. I'm still learning today, 20 years later."

The best check Waranch ever wrote was the one for $55,000 that bought an Afleet colt out of the 1994 Keeneland fall yearling sale. Named Northern Afleet, he went on to become one of the top middle-distance horses in the country in 1997, when he won five stakes under the care of David Hofmans.

Northern Afleet now stands in Florida for Waranch, doing business at Don Dizney's Double Diamond Farm. Saint Afleet is a member of Northern Afleet's second crop.

Hollywood Futurity winners usually have considerably more seasoning that Saint Afleet, but given the unsettled climate in the division, it would be no surprise to see him win. If he does, it will be off to the races for Waranch, whose sights are set on nothing less than than racing's Holy Grail.

"I'm just thrilled to death to be a part of the Horatio Alger Association," Waranch said. "And if we win the Triple Crown, it's my intention to give a percentage of the purse to the association."

He was smiling when he said it, but he wasn't kidding.