01/16/2002 1:00AM

May Madness starts now


ARCADIA, Calif. - Check the backyard, the closets, between the cushions, and behind the fridge. If you've got a male Thoroughbred born in 1999, preferably with both testicles and tail attached, you might have a gold mine.

It is that time again, the crazy days of January and February, when the market for a proven 3-year-old soars beyond reason, and otherwise responsible investors go ape over a chance to buy a piece of Triple Crown glory.

It's nuts, really nuts, this desperate pursuit of a Derby prize. Horses are ruined. Potential squandered. Hearts broken. It makes no sense at all . . . no sense, that is, until you've seen close-hand the bursting red face of Bob Lewis, stunned speechless by the upset of Charismatic, or the mad dash of Mike Pegram herding friends and family through the crowd to greet Real Quiet, or the way the race can bring one last ray of grace to a long life well lived, especially when lived by Paul Mellon, Bill Young, Cal Partee, or Frances Genter.

The scramble begins in earnest on Saturday, when Siphonic runs in the $150,000 Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park kicks off its Triple Crown preps with the $100,000 Holy Bull Stakes. Both are at 1 1/16 miles. From that point, until the Kentucky Derby on May 4, there will be more than 20 high-end stakes opportunities for owners and trainers who think they have a 3-year-old of Triple Crown quality.

The people who stir this stew are the racing secretaries. How much they spend and where they place their races goes a long way toward determining which colts emerge as the Derby favorites. Of course, racing secretaries are subjected to rampant second-guessing. It's part of the job description.

Mike Harlow runs the show at Santa Anita, where the stakes schedule for 3-year-olds has remained virtually unchanged for the past 20 years. In some circles, this would suggest stagnation, or a lack of creativity. There is a certain comfort, however, in looking up each year to find the Santa Anita Derby preps in about the same place and bearing the same names, although it is easy to confuse Miguel, Vicente, Rafael, and Felipe with the guys who play guitar in a mariachi band.

"We do try to hold the line," Harlow noted, "because if you look at what has fed the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown races over the last 10 years, it has been the California preps.

"What hurts us out here is the fact that only a handful of trainers have the good 3-year-olds," Harlow went on. What he meant to say was Bob Baffert, but he was being polite.

"That's something they don't deal with quite as much in New York and other places," Harlow continued, "particularly where there are a lot more breeders, and the horses are spread out. Not that I'd want to take horses away from people. But obviously, if some of the better 2- and 3-year-olds were spread out amongst 15 or 20 guys, that would help our program."

Until 1996, Southern California had no open stakes for the Derby-age division beyond seven furlongs between the Hollywood Futurity in December and the San Rafael Stakes in early March. Good horses were beginning to flee to places like New Orleans, New York, and Florida.

After 15 runnings of the Hollywood Futurity, the void finally was filled in 1996, when the Santa Catalina was changed from a restricted stakes to an open event. That was fine. But February remains a blank. Then the division is backloaded with the San Rafael, San Felipe, and Santa Anita Derby at eight, 8 1/2, and nine furlongs in a span of 35 days.

(Only the deeply cynical would suggest that Santa Anita's racing department has been told to withhold a significant Derby prep from mid-February. But yes, that is the $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes sitting there on Feb. 16 at Gulfstream Park, a Magna sister track, untroubled by competition from the West.)

The solution, by the way, is simple. Move the San Felipe to create two tracks leading to the Santa Anita Derby - the Santa Catalina/San Felipe at 1 1/16 miles, spaced at approximately five-week intervals, and the San Vicente/San Rafael, progressing from seven to eight to nine furlongs and spaced at one-month intervals as they are now. No one would have an excuse to leave town, unless the competition was too stiff.

Harlow, for his part, must be just as concerned with the second tier of opportunities - the maiden races, allowance races, and restricted stakes that feed the top races. In this age of virtual panic over depopulated races. When he splits a 14-horse maiden field, he is flirting with harsh criticism.

"The San Miguel ran with a five-horse field last Sunday, then on Thursday there's a 'nonwinners-other-than' that runs with five," Harlow said. "If I hadn't done that, maybe the San Miguel would have had seven or eight. But at the same time, with two opportunities, I might have created more people who think they are on the Triple Crown trail. You have to sacrifice sometimes to pay off down the road."

And it doesn't take much of a nudge to put people on that trail.