01/10/2002 1:00AM

A knack years in the making


ARCADIA, Calif. - She flew all night from L.A. and landed in London at dawn, a tough way to begin her first extensive prospecting adventure as a bloodstock agent. Groggy and jet-lagged, Laura Stone downed some breakfast tea with friends, then crawled into their car and watched the countryside scud past the window as they headed west, toward Newbury and the training yards of Lambourn.

Her first stop was the yard of John Hills, a former assistant to John Gosden and an old pal from Stone's days with with an international horse shipping firm. It was August in England, so of course it was drizzling and gray. As she emerged from the car, a set of horses was just returning from their training session, jacked up on adrenaline, damp from sweat and mist.

One of them caught her eye. Actually, it was the very first one she saw, the first of about 200 horses she would see on that trip. The colt wasn't that big, but he had power and presence, and the straight hind leg that Stone knew would serve him well on the dirt tracks of America. She asked if he could be bought. The answer was yes. His name was Momentum, his sire was Nureyev, and five months later he is the starting favorite for the $200,000 San Fernando Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.

Beginner's luck? Not hardly.

Stone, the daughter of noted equine artist Fred Stone, has done just about everything around the racetrack except train horses and drive the water truck. She started in the racing office, then got a job with Buster Millerick - that Damon Runyon character come to life - who would greet her each morning with a playful punch in the belly and a "Hello, Long and Lean" from around his stub of a cigar.

"Buster was a tremendous influence," Stone said. "I was just a kid, not even a groom, and we got along great. He taught me how to put on the running bandages, how to do a mud tail without tape, how to cook a mash - a thousand little things."

Stone galloped horses for Charlie Whittingham when women in the saddle were still few and far between. Among her colleagues were Jacque Fulton and Laura de Seroux, who both went on to training careers. Stone's education continued with the stable of Darrell Vienna and his barn full of European bargain runners, and then with the Narvick International bloodstock agency of Emmanuel de Seroux. She paid attention, and now it is paying off.

More recently, Stone has chosen to dive into a highly competitive bloodstock game that is already densely populated. Just about everybody around the racetrack seems to be either buying or selling a horse, and scoundrels abound.

But the true professionals can raise the job to a level of consistency and trust. In California alone, Stone has plenty of successful role models who specialize in the international scene, including her mentor, Emmanuel De Seroux, as well as Richard Duggan, Eugenio Colombo, Hubert Guy, Murray Friedlander, Luis Boza, and Francois DuPuis.

"I'm a bad saleswoman," Stone confessed. "I'm not good at all - unless I really like what I'm trying to sell. Seeing those horses last summer gave me such enthusiasm that I could come back and communicate that feeling."

Then there was the pedigree. Nureyev, who died last October, speaks for himself. Momentum is merely one of more than 125 stakes winners he sired during his 20 years at stud. When Stone got to the female line, she knew the deal was meant to be. Momentum's third dam is Banja Luka, from a prolific family of mares owned by the late Howard B. Keck. Banja Luka's pride and joy was Ferdinand, the Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year trained by Whittingham.

"I was still ponying a few horses for Charlie when Ferdinand came to the track," Stone recalled. "Before that I was there with horses like Dahlia, King Pellinore, and Caucasus, so I got to see the really good ones every day. I think that makes a difference."

Momentum took about a month to sell. Paul Reddam, owner of the classy sprinter Swept Overboard, bought him last September and turned him over to Craig Dollase. At that point, Momentum had won three of seven starts, missing the board only once. His first win came in the Cocked Hat Maiden Stakes over the right-handed nine-furlong course at Goodwood. He won the Mail on Sunday Mile Handicap Qualifier on the straightaway at Newmarket. And in his final British start, he took the nine-furlong Strenstall Stakes turning counter-clockwise at York.

Momentum's two American races were not quite so colorfully named, but the results were promising. He was second to Mizzen Mast in the Bien Bien Stakes on the Hollywood turf (the winner took the subsequent Malibu), then beat the older horse Euchre in the Native Diver Handicap on the main track. Euchre was last seen dropping a close one to Wooden Phone in the San Pasqual.

Selling a horse for a percentage comes with built-in pressure. Stone basically held her breath through Momentum's first two races. On Saturday, when Momentum faces a field that includes I Love Silver, Fancy As and Western Pride, Stone will be the one peeking between her fingers.

"The first time he ran I was a wreck," Stone said. "Truthfully, I'd rather not be there. When they run well, it's wonderful. But when they run badly, you feel like people are looking around for the agent.

"I don't know why I put myself through this," she added. "I just know that I love the horses. And I really love the challenge of trying to get a runner."