04/25/2002 11:00PM

Lusty Latin poses $62,000 question

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Joey Platts, Wyoming horse owner, hung up the phone with his accountant, Mark Duffin, last fall and hollered a bit of good news across the house to his wife, Wendy.

"Mark said I can buy a racehorse," Platts reported.

Wendy, seizing the opportunity, told Mark that was fine if he bought her a barrel-racing horse. With those negotiations quickly settled, Platts called California trainer Jeff Mullins and told him to search for a prospect.

Five months later, the colt that Mullins found, Lusty Latin, is taking Joey and Wendy Platts of Lyman, Wyo., to the Kentucky Derby for the first time.

Not bad for a $62,500 claim that was bought as a tax write-off.

"I told Wendy that she can be my partner and change my luck," Platts said, laughing at the memory of the purchase. "Now, I'm stuck with this partner for the rest of my life."

Only in the last month has the Kentucky Derby seemed like a logical goal for Lusty Latin, who will be the lone California-bred in the Derby.

By El Prado, Lusty Latin was bred by Joan Rogers's Applebite Farm in French Camp, Calif., and sold as a yearling for $29,000 to Curt and Lila Lanning at the 2000 California Thoroughbred Breeders Association yearling sale at Del Mar.

When Lusty Latin was claimed last November, Platts and Mullins were hoping they had a prospect who would like turf. Horses claimed at 2 are not expected to be in the Kentucky Derby, especially ones who win races such as the $30,000 Rattlesnake Stakes at Turf Paradise in January.

But Lusty Latin followed that with a third-place finish in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields and a third in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, the performance that clinched the trip.

"I told Jeff, 'I don't want a cheap claimer,' " Platts recalls. " 'I'm in no hurry before the end of the year,' I said. Three weeks later, he called."

Mullins spotted Lusty Latin in a nine-runner turf race over 1 1/16 miles at Hollywood Park on Nov. 29. At that point, he had one victory in four starts - a $32,000 claiming race for maidens at Fairplex Park. His best race at 2 was a fifth-place finish at 61-1 in the California Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.

"I liked him because he'd run fifth in the Cal Cup," Platts said. "I knew when I got off the phone Jeff would claim that one."

To the Lannings, Lusty Latin was one that got away.

"He was a nice colt," Curt Lanning said. "We did well with him and they've done well with him."

After Lusty Latin finished fourth in his first start for the Platts in the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate Fields on Dec. 15, Mullins was searching for a turf race. He found one for claimers at the same time the Rattlesnake Stakes was run at Turf Paradise.

"I told Jeff, 'We know we got a sound horse,' " Platts recalled. "I knew if we'd have put him back in for $62,500 someone would claim him."

The Rattlesnake Stakes, run over a mile on dirt, remains Lusty Latin's only stakes win. "It doesn't look good on his record going to the Derby," Platts admitted.

Three weeks later, Lusty Latin finished third in the Turf Paradise Derby. At that point, an undescended testicle was diagnosed.

"Two days after, Jeff says, 'We've got a different horse. His attitude has changed,' " Platts said. "He was more lively acting. It was probably bothering him pretty bad."

The third-place finishes in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields and the Santa Anita Derby gave Lusty Latin enough earnings in graded stakes to ensure a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Throughout Lusty Latin's career, Joan Rogers has closely followed the colt's progress.

Rogers bought Lusty Latin's dam, Scarlet Ann, for $21,000 at the 1998 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, while she was in foal to El Prado. Scarlet Ann produced Lusty Latin at Applebite Farm in 1999 and a colt by Distinctive Cat in 2000. The mare died later that year because of colic, Rogers said.

In the last two years, Scarlet Ann's foals have been successful. McMahon won the Sportsman's Park Breeders' Cup Handicap earlier this year, and Kernal K was stakes-placed at Philadelphia Park last year.

Rogers has clear memories of Lusty Latin as a yearling, including one rambunctious incident that nearly kept him out of the Del Mar yearling sale.

"He attempted to jump through a stall door that was half-open," Rogers said. "He caught the cannon bones and scraped the skin off. That was the day the inspector came."

Lusty Latin still passed inspections for the sale, but the early impressions he gave Rogers did not suggest that the Kentucky Derby was on the schedule.

"He never really moved that fast," Rogers said.

Mullins, 39, has been based in California for the last year and has 16 horses at Hollywood Park. Lusty Latin is the best horse he has trained. His wife, Amy, exercises most of the stable each day.

For years, Mullins trained at Turf Paradise and made occasional trips to California. Before this spring, he considered L'Effaceur, the winner of the Pomona Derby in 2000, to be his best horse.

Lusty Latin, the gunboat gray closer who was running best at the finish of the Santa Anita Derby, has changed all that.

"I always dreamed about the Kentucky Derby, but never with a horse I claimed," Mullins said. "I think he's just starting to come to himself. He's starting to figure out, 'I'm a racehorse.'

"He's kind of a big-old, dumb-acting slow-mover. Everything he's done until now, we've had to ask him to do. We're hoping now that he's figuring it out on his own and will be more willing. He would be just as content to gallop where he starts.

"He's getting better with every start. The Belmont is the one I'm kind of excited for, going a mile and a half."

Joey Platts, 40, could have walked away after the Santa Anita Derby. The owner of an industrial construction company, he said his phone rang with offers, but that he turned them down, leaving on the table the chance for a quick profit. He wants to take his chance in the Kentucky Derby with the ex-claimer, hoping to repeat history. In 1999, Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby in an upset after losing a $62,500 claiming race earlier that year.

"I want to get it here and see what we can do," he said. "People are calling and asking if they could buy him. Someone must have let the vultures out.

"This may be my only chance. I tell them, 'I don't need your money. It's not going to change my lifestyle.' I'm a gambler. I can eat crow if we run dead last.

"On May 5, he might be worth $10 million or he might be worth $10. They better watch out. If they don't have enough distance between them, between the leaders and him turning for home, I think he's got a shot. He'll be closing."