02/24/2003 12:00AM

Just show him the money

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ARCADIA, Calif. - A race with a history as rich as the 65 runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap deserves more than just the usual heroes.

True, the Handicap is synonymous with names such as Seabiscuit, Shoemaker, Whittingham, and Pincay. But there is room for Richard Mandella, who put his name in lights forever by saddling the one-two-three finishers in 1997, and for Quicken Tree, the 1970 winner who is buried at the top of the stretch, as well as Terry Lipham, the only man to ride the winners of a Santa Anita Handicap and an All-American Futurity.

No one will ever touch Bill Shoemaker's record 11 Santa Anita Handicap winners. Laffit Pincay Jr.'s five is a more reasonable target, although the only jockeys operating today with a chance to hit that mark are Gary Stevens, with three, along with Kent Desormeaux and Pat Valenzuela, each with two.

But first they've got to catch Pierce. Don Pierce, that is, the stakes-winning machine from Broken Bow, Okla., who was always there when the money mattered. He rode for all the best barns of the 1960's and 1970's. He roamed the Southern California circuit in a Mercedes with a license plate that read "WIN DP." Even now, 18 years after his retirement, he ranks seventh on the stakes-winning list at Santa Anita and 10th at Hollywood Park.

Pierce settled in Southern California in the summer of 1958 and rode in his first Santa Anita Handicap the following year. Between 1960 and 1972, he won the race four times.

"And I thought I'd won my fifth in 1973," Pierce said this week from his home in Del Mar, where he will celebrate his 66th birthday in April.

It was no brag, just fact. Thirty years ago, in front of 59,625 fans, Pierce gave Canadian champion Kennedy Road the ride of his life, only to be caught on the nod by Pincay and Cougar II. An inquiry delayed the final decision that day, although Pierce knew the narrow result would stick.

"I couldn't really ride my horse, he was getting out so bad," Pierce said. "In fact, he came out into Laffit's horse. It wasn't the other way around. Mind you, I wouldn't have complained if the stewards had seen it that way."

By 1973, the Santa Anita Handicap seemed like Pierce's race to lose. He began his run winning a four-horse photo with Linmold in 1960, continued with the surprising Physician in 1962, added Hill Rise in 1965, and then topped things off with Triple Bend in 1972.

"Triple Bend didn't like the stick," Pierce said. "I found that out in the San Fernando when Autobiography came to him. I hit my horse and he backed up. So I went to hand-riding, and he came on again to get a dead heat."

Knowledge, being power, allowed Pierce to exercise maximum cool in that 1972 Handicap. The free-running Triple Bend had Unconscious and Angel Cordero measured with a furlong to run, but Cougar and Shoemaker were closing fast. Imagine the discipline required. A lesser jock would have gone to the whip in a heartbeat - and lost. Pierce gave Triple Bend nothing but hands and heels, and won by a head. His lasting impression?

"I don't think Cougar would have caught him if we'd gone around again."

Pierce and Physician supplied the Handicap with a slice of its most entertaining lore. On paper, the horse was a hopeless outsider, relegated to the Rex Ellsworth second string and running under the name of Lynn Boice, an assistant trainer in the Ellsworth domain. As a result, Physician was coupled in the betting with the two muscle-bound Ellsworth entrants, Olden Times and defending champion Prove It.

"I'd never ridden Physician before," Pierce said. "Lynn told me he'd run off if you put him into the race, so I figured the only thing to do was grab him the first jump out of the gate. I didn't have anything to lose. If he hadn't been coupled with those others, he would have been 99-1."

And everyone let him know. Before the Handicap, Pierce broached the customary subject of "saving" with his fellow Ellsworth riders, Bill Shoemaker and Alex Maese. The accepted practice called for the winning jock to split the pot with his entrymates, just to maintain a subtext of teamwork in an otherwise cutthroat game. Shoemaker and Maese declined, however. Actually, they had a good laugh.

"I didn't care about the money," Pierce said. "What got me was the fact that they thought I had no shot at all."

Pierce had Physician a distant last of 13 as Maese and Olden Times controlled the pace. Shoemaker and Prove It were cruising along in third.

"Down the backstretch, Physician started picking up horses on his own," Pierce said. "I knew he could win. Only thing was, he was lugging in so bad that every time I passed a horse, I had to pull him out from behind the next one."

Pierce didn't hear it at the time, but somewhere around the quarter pole, as Physician was blowing past opponents like they were tied to the rail, a little voice piped up from the pack, "You're in!"

It was Shoemaker. And it was too late. Physician went on to beat Olden Times by 2 1/2 lengths. Prove It was a well-beaten ninth. And the jockey's cut of the $100,000 winner's purse went directly into the account of one Donald Pierce.