03/02/2006 12:00AM

Just waiting to pop the cork


ARCADIA, Calif. - As the flagship racetrack of a company that lost $105 million in 2005 - according to an "earnings" report released this week - Santa Anita Park has a right to be down in the dumps. Magna Entertainment Corp. continues to bleed maple-leaf red, a situation that can't last much longer without either a dramatic turnaround in business or some kind of traumatic upheaval among its holdings.

But even if the head office up in Canada is singing the blues, Santa Anita itself has been putting a proud foot forward this season. Now under passionate local direction - led by native Southern Californians Ron Charles and George Haines - the management team seems imbued by a renewed enthusiasm, while operating under the conviction that they have a major-league franchise, deserving of the appropriate dedication and care.

Saturday's bonanza of stakes, backed by a solid undercard, is guaranteed to be a big day. Brother Derek is running. The weather should be fine. And, yes, there will be mariachis.

It is a shame, therefore, to report that the centerpiece Santa Anita Handicap appears to be woefully underfunded, especially for a million-dollar event possessed of the most colorful history in the West.

All will be forgiven, of course, if High Limit, Giacomo, and Lava Man rise to the occasion and come down to the end of the mile and a quarter in fast time as a brawling team, leaving the rest of the nine-horse field far behind. Similar absolution was granted two years ago when a blah bunch was enlivened by the scrappy one-two finish of Southern Image and the filly Island Fashion.

It is also unreasonable these days to expect the Santa Anita Handicap to look like the Breeders' Cup Classic, even though it did, sort of, in 1987 when Broad Brush defeated classic winners Ferdinand and Snow Chief, along with major winners Hopeful Word, Nostalgia's Star, and Bedside Promise.

The 1969 field was similarly deep, topped by champion Nodouble over champion mare Gamely, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Quicken Tree, and major stakes winners Most Host, Rising Market, Dignitas, and First Mate. And it took an awfully good horse to win the Handicap in 1965 when Hill Rise beat Preakness winner Candy Spots, eventual Canadian Horse of the Year George Royal, 131-pound highweight Gun Bow, and Strub winner Duel.

The lack of either breadth or depth in the 2006 running of the Santa Anita Handicap has prompted trainer Darrell Vienna and owner Bill Herrick to take a flyer with the recent allowance race winner Magnum.

If nothing else, he comes from a hot barn, where 2006 stakes winners Star Parade and Atlando also reside. Vienna and Herrick have done well over the past 19 years with runners such as Robyn Dancer, Classy Women, and Disturbingthepeace. As Herrick notes, "Darrell is never without resources. He always figures out a way, and he figures it's worth a shot."

Bill and Donna Herrick, married for 52 years, got into the business in 1986, three years after selling their 58 hotels. They eventually settled on Thoroughbred racing as "something we thought we'd like to do." Magnum will be their first starter in the Santa Anita Handicap.

"The horse ran so well in his last race, he surprised everybody," Herrick said Thursday morning from his office in Carlsbad, just north of Del Mar. "Darrell always thought he worked like a stakes horse, but it took a while for him to get acclimated."

Vienna and Herrick first encountered Magnum in Argentina about a year and a half ago. He had a modest record in decent enough company, but most of all he turned out to be the right color.

"Before that, my wife had picked out one she loved," Herrick said. "He was completely black, very striking. He could run a little, but he ended up getting claimed. She was devastated, so we told her there was another black horse down there we could get in the $50,000 to $70,000 range, and that she could have him."

Magnum is out of a Rainbow Corner mare called Merrymaker, which probably means he was named with the oversized champagne bottle in mind, rather than the oversized revolver, or the under-dressed private investigator played by Tom Selleck. He is listed as dark bay or brown, but as far as the Herricks are concerned, he is black.

He will also be a longshot on Saturday, lumped in with other outsiders such as With Distinction, Wilko, Marenostrum, and Texcess. For the record, the longest price to ever win the race was Bay View, at 58-1, on a sloppy track in 1941, when he defeated Horse of the Year Challedon and the heavily favored Tom Smith entry of Mioland and Porter's Cap.

Don't look for such odds on Magnum. Herrick, like his trainer, abides by the numbers crunched on the Ragozin sheets, which give Magnum a serious shot at the first prize of $600,000. Nevertheless, Herrick has resisted the temptation to prepare a victory speech.

"I was with Darrell in Argentina when he bought Star Parade for not much money," Herrick noted. "So you just never know. But when you have nothing to lose, that's a situation I like. If he doesn't do well, we won't be crushed. If he finishes third, second, or even first, we'll be exhilarated. It will feel like we've shot the moon."