01/16/2003 1:00AM

How far can Bobby V. run?


ARCADIA, Calif. - It is not a stretch to label the Santa Catalina Stakes as Santa Anita's first serious step along a road that could lead to the Kentucky Derby. Certainly, history bears this out.

Even when the race was restricted to non-stakes winners, from 1963 through 1995, the Santa Catalina proved to be fertile ground. Unconscious, the winner in 1971, went favored in the Kentucky Derby. Sham scored his first stakes win in the 1973 Santa Catalina, won the Santa Anita Derby, and everything was going fine . . . until he ran into that big red horse.

Rumbo won a division of the 1980 running, then a few months later finished second to Genuine Risk at Churchill Downs, beaten only a length.

Ferdinand did Rumbo one better, winning the 1986 Santa Catalina and the Kentucky Derby as well.

Bill Spawr's only brush with Santa Catalina history came more than 30 years ago, while he was working for veterinarian Robert Baker at Baker's newly established clinic in Chino, east of Los Angeles. Among the earliest patients was Inverness Drive, a top sprinter who had stretched out to win the 1969 Santa Catalina. After recovering, Inverness Drive went back to the Joe Manzi stable at Santa Anita, and Spawr soon followed, eventually becoming Manzi's assistant.

Saturday, Spawr will try to add his name to the history of the Santa Catalina with Our Bobby V., a gray colt with a growing fan club. At 1 1/16 miles, however, the race will require Our Bobby V. to jump from the comfortable world of six furlongs, where he has flourished with two straight wins. The most recent of those came on Nov. 17 at Hollywood Park, a 1:09 and change effort that impressed even Laffit Pincay Jr.

"As soon as he came back that day, Laffit was looking at the board and shaking his head," Spawr said. "I asked him 'What's up?' "

What Pincay felt that day was a colt of deceptive speed, with a quiet, efficient action that belied the amount of ground actually being covered.

"Laffit thought he was going too slow," Spawr recalled. "When he looked at the time, he couldn't believe he went that fast."

Spawr wasn't all that surprised. Our Bobby V. had shown such promise from the start. His only drawback, if any, was a working-class pedigree that did not jump off the page and scream Triple Crown.

"He's not by Seattle Slew, or out of a Danzig mare, where he's got a lot of supposed class," Spawr said. "But being around him, he sure acts like it. And he's getting it somewhere.

"He's not a real big horse, but he's very, very agile and athletic," Spawr added. "He's a great mover. In other words, he doesn't pick his feet up more than an inch, just skips across the ground."

Our Bobby V. was bred in Washington from a mating of the Pleasant Colony stallion Majesterian and a mare named Davistalu. It does not take too much digging on the dam's side to discover the blood of Terrang and Lucky Debonair, both winners of the Santa Anita Derby.

Robert and Kathleen Verratti bought Our Bobby V. for $55,000 at the May 2002 Barretts sale of 2-year-olds. By September, Spawr had him ready for his first start at Del Mar. Anyway, he thought he did. The colt was strongly favored and badly beaten. It was not a pretty sight.

"He came out of it like something was bugging him," Spawr said. "He coughed a little, but there was no temperature. The thing was, going to the gate that day, I knew we were in trouble. He was just being a jerk, acting up, trying to jump on the pony. His mind was on everything else except running. And that's the way he ran.

"It was very disappointing, because we had high expectations for him," Spawr added. "He'd already outworked a couple of very nice horses."

Spawr considered his options. He worried that Our Bobby V. might be a morning glory. He wondered if the class factor might have reared its ugly head. Huddling with Bob Verratti - the first Bobby V. - Spawr even tossed out the option of gelding their young colt. Understandably, Verratti took the suggestion personally.

"You cut him," he told his trainer, "and I'll cut you."

"Okay," Spawr said. "Let's leave him alone."

The story was different on Oct. 6 at Santa Anita when Our Bobby V. passed his maiden test by five. Now, with two sprints as foundation, Our Bobby V. has reached a fork in the road.

"He's got all the factors to get a route, except one," Spawr said. "He' s just not made like a horse who will run that far, not that long-backed type you think of when you think of distances.

"But he's got the temperament," Spawr added. "He moves like a horse who will get a route. And I think he's got the class. I just want to let him run his own race, and then we'll see what we've got."