11/04/2002 1:00AM

It's Millerick time for Shirreffs

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Tom Shapiro and his family stormed into the Santa Anita winner's circle last Saturday, delirious with joy over the victory of Calkins Road in the California Cup Classic and singing the praises of their trainer, their jockey, and their horse, who had just beaten Continental Red in a real thriller.

"He's the greatest," Shapiro said to anyone who would listen. "John is the greatest."

John was also missing. John Shirreffs, that is, the man behind the development of the Calkins Road into the best California-bred 3-year-old of 2002.

"I was standing right beside him, watching the race back there behind the winner's circle," said Rick Sanchez, Shirreffs's assistant trainer, as he accompanied Calkins Road through the grandstand tunnel. "When it looked like we were going to win, I turned and John was gone."

Don't be alarmed. This has happened before. Shirreffs pulls his post-race Houdini routine with charming regularity. Chances are you will find him making a beeline for the test barn, or in a cluster of grandstand fans watching the replay. He'll be the guy in a ball cap and a sport coat, blending anonymously with the crowd, and perfectly happy to chat with anyone who happens to recognize his face.

A casual diagnosis might jump to the conclusion that the 57-year-old Shirreffs is terminally shy, superstitious, and fearful of contact with cameras, tape recorders, notebooks, and champagne. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Shirreffs simply derives sufficient pride and satisfaction from the craft of training the Thoroughbred racehorse. He doesn't need any pictures to tell him he did a good job, or that he had a day worth remembering. Imbued with a healthy mistrust of all pageantry, Shirreffs leaves the winner's circle to the people who pay the bills.

The Shapiros understand. Boy do they understand. Trainers of unconventional brilliance seem to run in the family. Tom Shapiro's grandfather was Louis K. Shapiro, a pioneer in the California Standardbred industry who also raised and raced Thoroughbreds. L.K. Shapiro's most famous horse was Native Diver, and his trainer was Buster Millerick, a bona fide eccentric.

"Buster was definitely a John Shirreffs kind of guy," said Bob Benoit, who knew Millerick well from his days running Hollywood Park's publicity department. "John might even be Buster's clone.

"I remember getting Buster in the winner's circle only twice for some kind of presentation," Benoit recalled. "I had to start working on him early in the morning to get him to do it, and then he stood there like a third-grader, arms at his side, just as uncomfortable as he could be."

While Millerick was orchestrating Native Diver's Hall of Fame career in the mid-1960's, Shirreffs was in Vietnam, serving with the U.S. Marines.

"Either that or flunking out of college," Shirreffs said with a laugh.

After that, one of the first stops in Shirreffs's racing career was at Loma Rica Ranch in northern California. As the home of Kissin' George, a top sprinter trained by Millerick in the late 1960's, there was no shortage of wild Millerick tales. One day word got around that Millerick was paying a visit, along with a friend named Al Gomez.

"I'd always heard that Millerick was a real tough guy," Shirreffs said. "Chewing that cigar. Growling at people. So what's he doing the first time I meet him? He and Gomez are having a water fight with the hoses out by the barn."

By now, Shirreffs has earned a reputation as a complete horseman whose talents have brought out the best in such stunners as Manistique, Borodislew, Swept Overboard, and Bertrando. And with contemporaries War Emblem and Came Home out of the picture, Calkins Road could have a good winter ahead as a 4-year-old.

"I'd like to think so," Shirreffs said as he made his way through the Santa Anita paddock gardens, long after the Classic had been run. "He didn't go through all the Triple Crown business a lot of the others did.

"But this guy still likes to loaf when he gets to the lead," Shirreffs added. "Laffit knows it, too. The last place you want him to be is on the lead at the eighth pole."

That is exactly where Calkins Road and Laffit Pincay Jr. found themselves near the end of the $250,000 Classic. When Continental Red edged in front, Shirreffs was ready to settle for second. Then Calkins Road came on again to win by a head.

With that, Calkins Road completed a sweep of the two richest races for statebreds this season. His narrow victory in the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes last April was the highlight of Hollywood Park's Gold Rush Day, a young cousin of the well-established Cal Cup.

So let Shirreffs have his Millerick moments, and be grateful for the continuity of a well-known racing family like the Shapiros. Calkins Road is no Native Diver, but he is a good young horse, and he is surrounded by people who will give him a chance.

"I came to the track more than 30 years ago," said Rick Sanchez. "There were three guys I watched - Charlie Whittingham, Farrell Jones, and Buster Millerick. Buster was one of the very best. His horses always looked great. He never cut any corners."

Sanchez could have been talking about his boss.