11/04/2005 1:00AM

A longshot, but not too long

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Devil Badgett went to bed on the evening of Oct. 2, back in familiar surroundings, probably wondering if the previous month had been nothing but a dream.

Since March of 2004, he had been an upright citizen in the Jack Carava stable, holding down a key spot in the lineup and more than paying his way. He liked the food, the hours were good, and the sounds around the Carava shed row were like music to his ears.

At the same time, regular players of Southern California races had grown accustomed to the sight of Devil Badgett - becoming grayer with every start - putting in his steady, honest run through the stretch of middle-distance events, mostly on the grass.

Sometimes he'd get there, sometimes he wouldn't, but he rarely failed to lay down his best. Throwing out an ambitious sprint and an uncomfortable mile on a sealed, wet surface, Devil Badgett hit the board in 11 of 17 starts. Then came Aug. 31 at Del Mar and a solid second on the Del Mar grass, after which he was led back to the Mike Mitchell barn instead of Camp Carava.

Two starts later, Devil Badgett is back in Carava's hands, ready and willing to carry the stable hopes on Sunday in the $250,000 California Cup Classic. The Classic headlines a 10-race program for the sons and daughters of California nurseries, with such familiar names as Dream of Summer, Unfurl the Flag, House of Fortune, Moscow Burning, Valentine Dancer, Charbonnier, and Thor's Echo sprinkled through the card.

Contesting the Classic is a far cry from the day Devil Badgett was claimed by Carava for $25,000. But Carava thought enough of his horse to nominate him last August. And besides, the Cal Cup tends to nurture such hopeful leaps of faith. Even though Classic contenders Desert Boom, Texcess, and McCann's Mojave sport more polished dossiers, stranger things have happened in the 15 runnings of the 1 1/8-mile event.

In 1991, the second running of the Classic was rocked on its heels by Bob and Barbara Walter's Charmonnier, who upset the heavily favored Best Pal at odds of 28-1.

In the 1994 Classic, the modest claimer College Town was inspired by Laffit Pincay to shock the older runners Kingdom Found and Goldigger's Dream, coming home for trainer Mel Stute at a fat 33-1.

Then last year it was the storybook finish provided by the 20-1 Cozy Guy to beat 25-1 Lava Man, giving trainer Dan Hendricks his first significant stakes win in the wake of his crippling motocross accident.

"It's worth giving him a try," Carava said Friday morning at Santa Anita when asked about Devil Badgett, a son of Bold Badgett out of a Prospectors Gamble mare. "I didn't have a strong intention of running him in the Classic. But watching the natural progression of other horses hitting the sidelines, we decided to give him a shot.

"Realistically, he's got two things working against him," Carava went on. "A mile and one-eighth is a smidge far for him. And even though his form is pretty equal running on dirt or turf, he seems to be a faster horse on the grass."

Unless a horse has become some kind of stable pet, it's not every day that a trainer re-claims a 5-year-old gelding he has just lost after a long run. In the case of Devil Badgett, there was very little sentiment involved.

"He's always been a fairly sound horse," Carava noted. "The original owners didn't want him back, but my main owner, Ron Valenta of La Canada Stables, has always liked the horse. When he was in for $50,000, Ron asked about taking him. I couldn't give him enough reasons to say no. He hadn't been gone long, and he didn't have enough problems that there would be any real difference in him."

Mitchell put blinkers on Devil Badgett for his two starts, which included a fifth-place finish in the Hinds Memorial Pomona Handicap at Fairplex Park. They will be off again for Carava.

"He wore them often before I claimed him the first time around," Carava said. "I took them off immediately. I found that they kept him from relaxing early, especially in turf races, which would take something out of his kick."

At the age of 39, the Cal-bred Carava is a respected practitioner of the claiming game who still has plenty of time to evolve into a name-brand stakes trainer. He has been there before, with such runners as First Intent, winner of the Bing Crosby Handicap, and Sunday Stroll, who gave Carava is lone Cal Cup win in the 1998 Juvenile.

A tour through a Carava barn is always a little misleading. The place glows with diligent care, and the horses are sleek and happy, acting more like stakes winners and future champions than hard-working claimers.

All he needs is that one live patron armed with the financial courage. Carava can take it from there.

In the meantime, an upset victory in the Cal Cup Classic certainly couldn't hurt. If nothing else, Devil Badgett won't go down without a fight.

"It might be a little bit of a stretch to imagine him winning a race like this," Carava said. "But if you're ever going to run for $250,000 in the Cal Cup, this is the year to try it."