07/15/2004 12:00AM

Looks like one for the money


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It appears as if the starting gate will be less than half full - or more than half empty, if you are a pessimist - when the 65th running of the Hollywood Juvenile Championship takes place here on Saturday. But take hope. There could be a gold nugget among the chosen few.

At six furlongs, usually stocked with maidens and nonwinners "other than," the Juvenile Championship could be described as merely an early-summer sprint for 2-year-olds still wearing their training wheels. The purse of $100,000 doesn't exactly have the big stables flocking to town.

Recent winners and well-placed runners, however, belie the measly Grade 3 tag attached to the HJC. Came Home won the race in 2001, along with the Santa Anita Derby, Swaps Stakes, and Pacific Classic in 2002. Squirtle Squirt went from winning the Juvenile Championship in 2000 to winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint of 2001. Dixie Union won it in 1999, then added such major events as the Haskell Invitational and the Malibu Stakes the following year.

Then there was last year's third-place finisher, Ruler's Court, who was clearly the best 2-year-old in California by the end of the season, thanks to his overpowering victory in the Norfolk Stakes.

Of course, it's hard to top the accomplishments of a Triple Crown winner and two-time Horse of the Year, Affirmed, winner of a division of the 1977 Juvenile Championship, or even Tomy Lee, who won the Hollywood event in 1958 and then the 1959 Kentucky Derby. Desert Wine, the winner in 1982, finished second in the '83 Derby and Preakness, then won the Hollywood Gold Cup at age 4.

If there is a horse in Saturday's field who has hinted at such a future, it is Chandtrue. Now 3 for 3 and winning each time by daylight, Chandtrue represents the entire stable of retired auto dealership owner Harold Greene.

"That's it - I'm a one-horse conglomerate," Greene said Thursday morning from his home near Asheville, located in the pine forests of his native North Carolina.

Greene is hardly a novice to the game. Through the years, while racing in Southern California, he won well over a hundred races with such trainers as Warren Stute, Mel Stute, and Hector Palma, as well as Bob Hess, who handles Chandtrue.

"Many years ago, Mel took me to a yearling sale at Santa Anita, and I bought my first horses," Greene recalled. "One was for $7,500 - the sales-topper - and the other was for $1,500. I gave my wife the $1,500 horse, and he won more than $75,000. I never even got the $7,500 horse to the races."

If nothing else, Greene must have learned a valuable lesson.

"No," Greene said with a chuckle. "I just kept my head down and kept going."

Among Greene's victories were a cluster of stakes at the L.A. County Fair, where he won the Pomona Derby with Bargain Balcony and the Foothill Stakes with Foot the Bill.

In the late 1990's, Greene backed away from the racing business while he sold his California dealerships and built his North Carolina home. Then, last summer, Greene phoned Hess with a simple request: Find him a yearling at the September Keeneland sale. Chandtrue fit the bill, leaving the ring at $130,000.

"I was ready to go to $150,000 if I had to," Greene noted. "But I never knew I'd get this good a horse."

Hess has been working hard not to get overly pumped about Chandtrue's future, although recent events have him looking ahead.

"At first he acted pretty much like a one-dimensional rocket," Hess said. "I thought we might have a super-fast 2-year-old who probably wouldn't relax. He'd have to earn his money early in the season, because as the distances got longer, we might be in trouble."

After winning his maiden wire-to-wire in a half-mile burst April 29, Chandtrue was asked to start galloping behind horses in the morning, in an attempt to bottle the rocket. He treated the experience like a dose of castor oil.

"It wasn't his original way of thinking, but he's learning," Hess said.

In making his fourth start on Saturday, third in a stakes, Chandtrue is already looking like a throwback to the days when California 2-year-olds started early and often. Ahead lies the Best Pal Stakes and Del Mar Futurity at Del Mar, both of them richer races with better grades than the Juvenile Championship.

"I don't do this sort of thing," Hess said. "The two trainers I respect most are Richard Mandella and Neil Drysdale. I've tried to treat this horse like Drysdale would, but the damn horse keeps begging for more. Because our main goal is the Futurity, I think I'll have to overrule the horse next time and skip the Best Pal. To think of six starts at that point with a young 2-year-old who is growing before my eyes and filling out is way too radical for Bob Hess."

Greene goes along with his trainer when it comes to campaigning Chandtrue, even though he never gets tired of hearing the name. The colt is a son of Yes It's True, winner of the 1998 Hollywood Juvenile Championship, and Chandelle, a daughter of Crafty Prospector.

"It's a classic name, I think," Greene said. "It would even look good in the Derby."

First things first.