02/08/2007 12:00AM

It was fun while it lasted

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Whitey, we hardly knew ye!

It was a grand run, these past 45 days, to be known forever in the Santa Anita annals as the brief but glorious Michael McCarthy era. Sadly, though, it all comes to an end when the clock strikes midnight on Saturday, the coach turns into a pumpkin, and McCarthy - Whitey, to his old California compadres - goes back to his role as Todd Pletcher's West Coast alter ego.

Pletcher's 45-day suspension for a 2004 mepivicaine positive in New York put McCarthy and his Florida counterpart, Anthony Sciametta, temporarily in the spotlight. Horses ran in their names at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, and any purse winnings were likewise attached.

Sciametta, firing with both barrels, led the Gulfstream standings with 18 winners from 78 starters through Wednesday. McCarthy, playing with fewer cards, has won with 5 of the 18 he saddled at Santa Anita, taking the Palos Verdes Handicap with Friendly Island and the Sham Stakes with Ravel, in addition to Icy Atlantic's runner-up effort to Lava Man in the Sunshine Millions Turf. Apparently, these guys know what they're doing.

Any thoughts of a coup d'etat, however, are discouraged by the fact that the Pletcher stable, as a unit, has accumulated purse earnings of more than $65 million over the past three seasons. McCarthy, for one, will be satisfied with his month and a half in the sun and perfectly happy to answer officially to assistant trainer once again. Still, those Santa Anita starters listed with his name alone were the stuff dreams are made of.

"Given the circumstances, it's still pretty neat," McCarthy said. "Santa Anita is one of the toughest meets in the country to win races. So I'm pretty proud of the way the whole team has worked out here this winter. It's not like we had to take down the Todd Pletcher webbings and plaques. But if we keep this roll going, maybe we should."

Born in Youngstown, Ohio, McCarthy dates his California racing memories to the late 1980's, when he graduated from Arcadia High School, barely a stone's throw from Santa Anita.

"Sunday Silence was racing when I was a senior, and Best Pal came along after that," McCarthy recalled. "If two horses like that don't get you excited about horse racing, nothing will."

The game soon sucked him in. McCarthy, 36, worked as a veterinary assistant and for a number of California trainers, including a brief tour with Doug Peterson of Seattle Slew fame and a longer stint with Ben Cecil, trainer of champion turf mare Golden Apples. He joined the Pletcher organization four years ago.

McCarthy has a chance to go out on a high note on Saturday when he saddles the A.P. Indy filly Rags to Riches in the Las Virgenes Stakes against a salty field that will feature stakes winners Jump On In, Romance Is Diane, Baroness Thatcher, Cash Included, and Quick Little Miss. The one-mile main track event leads to the Santa Anita Oaks, and ultimately to the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on the day before the Derby.

Rags to Riches is leaping from the frying pan of a flashy maiden score into a Grade 1 fire, but McCarthy said he thinks she is up to the challenge. At $1.9 million worth of Coolmore money, she had better be.

"Going from a maiden to a Grade 1 is not exactly par for us," McCarthy said Thursday after training hours at Hollywood Park. "But at this time of the year, sometimes you can get lucky.

"Demi O'Byrne thinks she's the best-looking filly he's ever bought," McCarthy added, referring to Coolmore's senior bloodstock adviser. "She's just a real classic-looking filly. Beautiful head, beautiful eye, and a good mind. She does not have any quirks at all. And of course, we've always been excited about her pedigree."

Rags to Riches is a half-sister to 2006 Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, with a personal history that seems to be stalking her famous brother at every turn. Rags to Riches made her racing debut with a fourth-place finish last June 10 at Churchill Downs, the same afternoon Jazil won the Belmont for the Kiaran McLaughlin stable. The filly missed the rest of her 2-year-old season with a minor injury suffered at Saratoga, but reappeared with a flourish to win by six at Santa Anita on Jan. 7. That was two days after Jazil made his first start since the Belmont and finished second at Aqueduct.

Once again, Jazil is setting the table, although he has yet to recapture his Belmont magic. On Thursday, he finished a distant second to Corinthian in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park. Now Rags to Riches takes her turn on Saturday.

"No question it's a tough race," McCarthy said. "What she lacks in experience I think she makes up for in class. In the end, though, it will be up to her. We're responsible for the effort, not the outcome. I heard Jerry Bailey say that one time, and it makes a lot of sense."