02/08/2008 1:00AM

Hughes holding pair of aces


ARCADIA, Calif. - Wayne Hughes is embarrassed, as in, embarrassment of riches. With less than three months left before they sing that song at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, Hughes has two of the West's leading 3-year-olds - Into Mischief and Crown of Thorns - putting him in an enviable position that rarely happens, even to owners who spend a lifetime trying to get there.

Crown of Thorns, from the first crop of Louisiana Derby winner Repent, won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes last weekend, while Into Mischief, a son of Harlan's Holiday, won the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park in December and makes his 2008 debut at Santa Anita on Sunday in the San Vicente Stakes at seven furlongs.

"I've never had it like this before," Hughes said Friday morning, from the corporate offices of his Public Storage and PS Business Parks, in Glendale, just down the 134 Freeway from Santa Anita.

"And we don't even know which one of them is the best," he went on. "Although Crown of Thorns made that move at the top of the stretch the other day that was quite spectacular. And then he made another move at the eighth pole to put them away."

It was a killer move, custom made for longer distances and the kind that triggers Derby dreams. But don't sell Into Mischief short. In the 1o1/16-mile Futurity, he was on the engine from the start and defeated favored Colonel John on the square, giving Hughes and trainer Richard Mandella a world full of options.

"If you really want to get right down to the reason, it's Richard Mandella," Hughes said. "Richard is a whole different ballgame. He does stuff, makes the smallest little changes, and the horse becomes a different animal. He thinks of nothing else. His outside interests are minimal. He's a perfectionist.

"And Richard won't exaggerate," Hughes added. "He won't lead you to believe you've got something when you don't, and he has a certain amount of pride in a good horse as it develops,"

Hughes has tiptoed to the brink before, most recently in 2005 when he supplemented his Illinois Derby winner Greeley's Galaxy to the Derby at a cost of $200,000 then watched him finish 11th, while his Derby Trial winner Don't Get Mad ran fourth. In 2004, his Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and division champion Action This Day managed to finish sixth to Smarty Jones. And before that, the Hughes colors were carried by the inexperienced Atswhatimtalknabout to a rough and tumble fourth behind Funny Cide in 2003.

Hughes has been known to spend what it takes to get a high-priced prospect, but neither of his current top colts cost him an arm and a leg. Both were purchased at the 2007 Ocala sale of 2-year-olds, where Crown of Thorns went for $300,000 and Into Mischief for $180,000. At this point, they have both won 2 of 3 starts.

"If you cut through it, Crown of Thorns looks like he wants to go the whole way," Hughes noted. "The mile and a quarter is a whole different thing for these young horses."

Born in Oklahoma and raised in Southern California, Hughes has been a racing fan for as long as he can remember. After owning a few California runners in partnerships, he caught his first headlines with the French mare Trishyde, a daughter of Nureyev who hit the board against the boys in two major turf races at Hollywood at the end of 1992, then later dropped a heartbreaker to the tenacious Exchange in a memorable running of the 1993 Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita.

The fortune Hughes has earned with his Public Storage company has allowed him to dive deep into the Thoroughbred business, capped by his purchase in 2004 of the former Spendthrift Farm, a piece of true racing history, where Nashua, Gallant Man, Raise a Native, and Never Bend are laid to rest.

But then, Hughes always has reveled in the lore of the game, going where most patrons raised outside the sport rarely dare to tread. For years, Hughes subjected himself to the verbal hardball played by the Southern California circuit's infamous Breakfast Club, a no-holds-barred bunch who gathered regularly to hash over the day's news, the distant past, and each other. If a withering putdown from Warren Stute didn't get you, Mel Stute's cigarette smoke would.

It is only fitting, then, that at some point Hughes would parlay the good fortune of a Derby contender into something fans would follow. He tried with his first Derby starter, Atswhatimtalknabout, when he sold a small share to Hollywood icon Steven Spielberg and "Seabiscuit" director Gary Ross. And he is doing it again with Crown of Thorns, who could have a glitzy entourage by the time he makes his next intended start in the Sham Stakes on March 1.

"As long as it can do something to promote racing, I'm for it," Hughes said. "I'm not doing this for myself. I know who owns the horse. But I think the public would find it much more interesting if somebody other than a guy renting garages owned it."