04/04/2002 12:00AM

Lusty Latin shoots for the big time

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday has attracted the winners of such prestigious races as the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and the San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita. And, of course, Lusty Latin, the winner of the $30,000 Rattlesnake Stakes at Turf Paradise in January.

Three months later, Joey and Wendy Platts, the owners of Lusty Latin are paying $30,000 to make their colt eligible for the Santa Anita Derby.

His presence proves that Triple Crown hopefuls can start any place.

Trained by Jeff Mullins, Lusty Latin will be a longshot in the Santa Anita Derby, the sort of contender that must finish in the top three to convince his team that a trip to the Kentucky Derby is feasible.

"I think he has to hit the board," Mullins said. "I think he'll run a lot farther than a mile and an eighth. If he hits the board and gallops out strongly, we'll consider it."

Getting this far has been a surprise for Mullins. Lusty Latin was claimed for $62,500 last November at Hollywood Park and has earned $63,383 since.

"The only reason I claimed him was to run him long on turf, but I couldn't get those races to fill," Mullins said.

After failing to find a turf race, Mullins sent Lusty Latin to Turf Paradise for the one-mile Rattlesnake Stakes, and a win. Three weeks later, Lusty Latin finished third in the Turf Paradise Derby. Most recently, he was third at 58-1 in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on March 9.

"When we won the Rattlesnake, we tried to pick up an easy one," Mullins said.

"We went back to Turf Paradise, and he improved a bit. He ran well at Golden Gate Fields, and he's been training forward ever since."

Last winter, Lusty Latin underwent minor surgery to remove an undescended testicle that Mullins said was bothering the colt.

"That and maturing along the way helped him a lot," he said.

At the least, Lusty Latin approaches Saturday's important test with plenty of energy. On Thursday, Lusty Latin was schooled in the starting gate, but instead of breaking from the gate he was supposed to walk out. His exit more closely resembled a lunge. A quick move by Mullins, positioned next to the gate on a pony, kept Lusty Latin from becoming too much of a handful for the exercise rider.

"And that was after he galloped two miles," Mullins said.

Mullins has two hopes for the Kentucky Derby. Next Saturday, he sends Captain Squire to the California Derby at Bay Meadows. He considers Lusty Latin to be his best chance for a trip to Louisville.

Glenn Corbett, one of the leading riders at Turf Paradise, has the mount on Lusty Latin. He was aboard for the last three starts.

"I don't want to change anything," Mullins said of his decision to stay with Corbett. "He's got him this far."

With a little luck on Saturday, the journey could lead to Kentucky this spring.

Tracemark's next: Cal Derby

Tracemark, fourth in the San Felipe Stakes on March 17, was not entered for the Santa Anita Derby, but will be pointed for the California Derby at Bay Meadows next Saturday, trainer Craig Dollase said.

Tracemark is only a maiden winner and would have been a longshot in the Santa Anita Derby.

"We don't know if he's at that level yet," Dollase said. "We think the race up north is an easier spot."

Santa Anita Now remains on air

Santa Anita Now, a live racing program presented on Saturdays in the Los Angeles area, will continue through the end of the winter-spring meeting on April 24.

The program runs from 1 to 4 p.m. on KDOC (Channel 56) and is available only in Southern California. It is designed as a promotion for XpressBet, the phone betting system operated by Magna Entertainment, Santa Anita's parent company.

In addition to showing races from Santa Anita, several races from northern California are presented. The program began on March 23.

Amy Zimmerman, the director of broadcasting at Santa Anita, said that KDOC does not subscribe to Nielsen ratings, making it difficult to measure viewer interest for the three-hour show.

She said the longstanding Santa Anita Live program, presented from 4 to 5 p.m. on the Fox Sports Net 2 cable system, has drawn increased ratings on Saturdays in recent weeks since Santa Anita Now was launched. Last Saturday, Santa Anita Live had a 1.2 rating, the second highest of the meeting, Zimmerman said.

"It leads us to believe that the KDOC viewers are switching over," she said.

Desormeaux, nursing ankle, takes off

Kent Desormeaux, who through Wednesday was second in the jockey's standings at the winter-spring meeting, took off his mounts on Thursday because of lingering pain from an ankle injury suffered before the fourth race on Wednesday.

Desormeaux was aboard Ellenhighwater, who became upset in the gate and was scratched. Desormeaux took off his final two mounts on Wednesday and four rides on Thursday.

Desormeaux spent Thursday morning at Hollywood Park but later told his agent, Tom Knust, that he was uncomfortable.

"His ankle is bothering him a little bit, and he wants to give it another day," Knust said.

Through Wednesday, Desor-meaux trailed Alex Solis by six winners in the standings. On Saturday, he rides top contender U S S Tinosa in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

Bernstein returning after surgery

Trainer David Bernstein said on Thursday that he planned to return to the racetrack this weekend after undergoing an operation to have his gall bladder removed last week.

Bernstein said he left the hospital at the beginning of the week. The operator of a public stable, Bernstein is best known as the trainer of The Wicked North, the champion older male of 1994.

Redattore eyes San Francisco Mile

Redattore, the winner of the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 3 who missed the Santa Anita Handicap in early March because of a foot problem, worked five furlongs on turf in 1:02.40 on Thursday.

Trainer Richard Mandella is considering the $250,000 San Francisco Mile on turf at Bay Meadows on April 27 or the $100,000 Inglewood Handicap at Hollywood Park on May 5.