06/21/2002 12:00AM

It's not too hard to make a case for Fonz's


PHOENIX - No doubt, I'm spitting into the wind here.

Came Home is the deserving heavy favorite for Sunday's Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap at Hollywood Park and will probably be in the vicinity of 2-5. The 1 1/16-mile Affirmed is his first start since a so-so eighth in the Kentucky Derby. Save for that race and a subpar run in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Came Home has been nothing short of brilliant, winning his other six starts, from five furlongs to 1 1/8 miles, including the Grade 1 Hopeful and Santa Anita Derby.

But there's no way you can play him at 2-5. You must look elsewhere if you're talking about a win wager.

Which brings us to Fonz's. He was good enough to scare Siphonic in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity, beating Officer on the square. Before that he won the Grade 3 Prevue at Hollywood. After the Futurity he got some time off, and when he returned in the one-mile, Grade 2 San Rafael he loomed in striking distance but faltered to fifth, looking very much like a short horse.

Fonz's shipped next to Sportsman's Park for the Illinois Derby and ran into a then little-known horse named War Emblem. Fonz's finished third, a few lengths behind then-Derby favorite Repent.

Trainer David La Croix regrouped and returned to Hollywood. That was key because Fonz's Hollywood races sparkle. His Futurity run shows he can handle the distance and he recently was an excellent second in the Grade 2 Laz Barrera, showing that he's fit.

Sure, you have to do some extrapolating of the handicapping data to put him in front of Came Home, but what if Came Home is still reeling from the effects of the Derby trail? Many a horse pointed specifically for the Derby subsequently trained well but did not come back quite the same. Fonz's may well be 9-2. The call on the win bet is an easy one.

If you think Came Home is unbeatable, there is still a way to wager. During his tenure as a win machine I loved Cigar - not merely for his talent, but from a wagering standpoint. If I could come up with the second finisher I might be able to click on a cold $10, $12, even $15 exacta. A Came Home-Fonz's exacta may come back in that price range.

McCarron belongs with all-time greats

It wasn't the most auspicious beginning. Chris McCarron's riding career began in 1974 with a last-place finish with his first mount. His first winner came 16 days later on Feb. 9, 1974.

But he won that year's Eclipse Award as the nation's top apprentice rider, winning a then-record 546 races and securing riding titles at Pimlico, Delaware Park, Bowie, and Laurel. He stamped himself as a true talent.

McCarron moved his tack to Southern California in 1978 and won a second Eclipse Award in 1980. He was the regular rider of Eclipse Award winners Alysheba, John Henry, and Tiznow, and Paseana and Flawlessly during their championship seasons. He teamed with Tiznow to win consecutive Breeders' Cup Classics. He won two Kentucky Derbies, with Alysheba in 1987 and Go for Gin seven years later. He won the George Woolf Jockey Award in 1980 and the Mike Venezia Award in 1991.

His election to the Hall of Fame in 1989 was a given. Some of the other horses who helped him get there were Precisionist, Touch Gold, Forty Niner, Danzig Connection, Bien Bien, Bienamado, Lady's Secret, Riboletta, Bayakoa, Best Pal, Alphabet Soup, Cavonnier, Lemhi Gold, Free House, and Sunday Silence. The debate over the best jockey is a fruitless one. How can you say what was better: Arcaro's strength, Shoemaker's touch, Pincay's power, or Cordero's guile? How can you measure the greatness of Bailey or Longden or Hartack or Day? I still believe the best raw talent I ever saw on a horse was Pat Valenzuela in his prime. And of the 10 best rides I have ever seen Corey Nakatani has given three or four of them.

But McCarron's name will be forever linked with the best the game has to offer. If I had Spectacular Bid or John Henry in my barn, and was looking for a jockey, I know McCarron's name would be at the top of the list. And he was good for the game. I don't think you can pay a rider a better compliment than that.