04/29/2002 11:00PM

Lack of respect, not accomplishment

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - From his guest stall at Neil Howard's barn on the east side of the Churchill Downs backstretch, Came Home is far away from the commotion surrounding many Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

For a five-time stakes winner, Came Home is also off the radar on many lists of top contenders.

Earlier this year at Santa Anita, Came Home won the San Vicente and San Rafael stakes and the Santa Anita Derby, but he arrived in Kentucky two weeks ago lacking the respect of major stakes winners such as Harlan's Holiday, Buddha, or Johannesburg.

In recent weeks, the four people who own Came Home - Bill Farish, John Goodman, Trudy McCaffery, and John Toffan - as well as trainer Paco Gonzalez and jockey Chris McCarron have found themselves defending the colt's reputation in advance of the Derby.

"It doesn't bother me," McCaffery said. "The two people I listen to are Paco and Chris. They are closest to the horse. Chris is on him and Paco watches him 24 hours a day."

Critics cite the absence of high speed figures as Came Home's biggest fault. His highest Beyer Speed Figure this year is a 111 earned in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes in February. He earned a 96 for his victory in the Santa Anita Derby over 1 1/8 miles. By comparison, Buddha earned a 105 in the Wood Memorial, Perfect Drift registered a 103 in the Spiral Stakes, and Private Emblem was given a 100 for his victory in the Arkansas Derby.

To Gonzalez, Came Home's speed figures are overshadowed by the problems the colt overcame in March.

In the month between the San Rafael Stakes on March 2 and the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, Came Home was cast in his stall, got sick, and bruised a foot.

"Sometimes, I thought we were going to have to pass that race," Gonzalez said of the Santa Anita Derby. "I had to gallop him or jog him and couldn't work him. We lost a lot of time that way."

The incident in the stall, which led to precautionary X-rays, and the illness were public knowledge before the Santa Anita Derby, but Gonzalez did not reveal the foot bruise until after the race.

"There was a lot of heat in the foot," Gonzalez said. "You could tell something was bothering him. Before, when we walked him, he'd jump and play. When he came out of the stall [with the bruised foot], he had his head down."

Came Home's foot improved in the week before the race, Gonzalez said.

Came Home won the Santa Anita Derby by 2 1/4 lengths, but was vigorously urged by McCarron to hold off Easy Grades, who is also preparing for the Kentucky Derby.

"In the Santa Anita Derby, the other horse came up to him, and if he was going to get beat it would have been then, but he opened up again," Gonzalez said.

Came Home's status is familiar territory for Gonzalez, 57, whose Kentucky Derby starters have never been well respected.

In 1991, Mane Minister finished third at 86-1. A winner of two minor stakes at Santa Anita earlier that year, Mane Minister lost by 3 1/2 lengths to Strike the Gold in the Derby.

Six years later, Free House had better credentials, having won the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby in close finishes with Silver Charm. Free House was dismissed as the 10-1 sixth choice in the Kentucky Derby and finished third, 3 1/2 lengths behind Silver Charm.

Came Home has a better record than that pair - six wins in seven starts and earnings of $871,440.

The lone blemish on his record is a seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October at Belmont Park. In the championship race for 2-year-olds, the Breeders' Cup loss hurt Came Home's status as a division leader.

Gonzalez quickly dismisses the Breeders' Cup loss. It was Came Home's first start since winning the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga seven weeks earlier and was preceded by a twisted ankle that cost him a start in the Norfolk Stakes at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in late September, Gonzalez said.

"I think we pushed a little going to the Breeders' Cup," Gonzalez said.

While the critics continue to knock Came Home's speed figures, Gonzalez has been thrilled at Came Home's physical condition since the Santa Anita Derby.

"He's been eating so good," Gonzalez said. "Breakfast is gone in 10 minutes. He's doing very good."

With his tactical speed, Came Home will be near the pace in the Derby. McCarron realizes that if Came Home runs too fast early there is little chance he will be a factor in the final furlong. Many feel Came Home will not be suited to the 1 1/4 miles, but the distance argument was presented before the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby.

The issue of distance is on McCarron's mind.

"I'll ask the colt that question on Saturday," he said. "In the gate, I'll say, 'See that long stretch? We have to go around and face that stretch again.' I'm confident he can do it."

So far this year, Came Home has passed each test. He faces his toughest on Saturday.