10/03/2004 11:00PM

John deserves shot at glory

Kerwin John rides Island Fashion to victory in the Lady's Secret.

ARCADIA, Calif. - If Kerwin John retains the mount aboard Island Fashion for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park, several basic facts of modern life must be reconsidered. Among them:

Could world peace really be at hand?

Can hunger end as we know it?

Is this the year the Red Sox finally win the Series?

Okay, that last one is a little too absurd to contemplate. Still, there is about as much chance of the boys of Fenway hoisting the World Series trophy as there is an unheralded rider without Breeders' Cup experience remaining attached to a top contender like Island Fashion for the most important race of her life.

It would be too bad if he doesn't get the chance, though, because the 29-year-old John gave the 4-year-old Island Fashion a perfect trip and a strong finish in the $250,000 Lady's Secret Handicap at Santa Anita on Sunday afternoon, effectively placing the daughter of Petionville in the thick of the mix for the Distaff.

Island Fashion's half-length victory over the onrushing Miss Loren in the 1 1/16-mile Lady's Secret validated the form that had made her the most versatile member of her generation. Between November of 2003 and March of this year, Island Fashion was beaten less than a length in the one-mile Matriarch on turf, won the La Brea and the Santa Monica at seven furlongs on the dirt, and then finished a brave second to Southern Image in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap.

Those achievements were beginning to fade, however, in light of her poor performance in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn and a disastrous trip to Japan, where she floundered in a one-mile grass race on wet ground around a right-hand turn. Even versatility has its limits.

Now, owner Jeffrey Nielsen and trainer Marcelo Polanco have returned Island Fashion to a more traditional path. The Lady's Secret was her first race since June, when the wheels came off in Japan, and it provided a perfect prep for a possible showdown with Sightseek, Azeri, and Ashado at Lone Star.

"She's something else, all right," Polanco said the morning after the race. "Kerwin rode her just like I told him to. He had worked her a few times, so he was familiar with her, but I didn't tell him who she was until he'd been on her a couple times."

It's easy to see how Island Fashion could escape detection. She is a willowy little thing, cloaked in a camouflage coat of salt-and-pepper gray, and never calls attention to herself . . . until the flag drops. John vividly remembers that first anonymous encounter one morning at Del Mar.

"I was surprised," John said. "She was so smooth, and relaxed. Very classy."

As expected, the agents of top-billed jockeys are already circling Nielsen and Polanco, trying to bump John for the big day. There is precedent, however, in going with the guy who got you there.

Charlie Whittingham stuck with 18-year-old Corey Black for the mount on heavily favored Infinidad in the 1987 Distaff. Perry Compton was Donnie Von Hemel's man aboard Evansville Slew in the 1994 Juvenile, even though the colt was second choice to Timber Country and Compton was not a proven commodity outside Oklahoma and Nebraska. And Allen Jerkens had no problem with the little-known Trindad native Ray Ganpath keeping the mount on Society Selection for the 2003 Juvenile Fillies, especially after they had teamed so well to win the Frizette.

John bears the quiet poise of a professional rider who has plied his trade far and wide. Before settling in Southern California last year, he had competed in such places as Mountaineer, Sam Houston, Tampa Bay Downs, and Fort Erie, as well as south Florida.

The Lady's Secret marked the richest race ever won by a rider from St. Croix, the southernmost of the three U.S. Virgin Islands floating in the Caribbean Sea, to the east of Puerto Rico.

Back on the island, John and his teenage pals used to watch endless hours of videotapes and satellite transmissions of major American races. Like kids playing pretend, they would soak up the images of Angel Cordero, Pat Day, and Gary Stevens, then jump aboard ponies and race wild on the beaches.

"One day, at a friend's house, he had a bathroom scale on his front porch," John recalled. "We all got on the scale and I was the lightest - I was like 97 pounds - and they told me to go down to the racetrack and give it a try. I thought, nah, nobody in my family ever had anything to do with horses. But I tried anyway, and it worked out."

John worked his way up through the traditional gantlet of stable jobs before earning a chance to ride. At the same time, he was getting a local reputation as a track athlete (100 and 400 meters) and in drag racing, both cars and motorcycles.

"One day I had an opportunity to ride a good horse, but I rode a motorcycle race instead," John said. "I hurt my knee, and that was it. I made up my mind that I was going to stick with horse racing. I loved them both, but I get a lot more out of being on a horse."

Especially when it's a horse like Island Fashion.