04/19/2007 11:00PM

McAnally chases history in San Juan


ARCADIA, Calif. - There is a certain meteorological justice to the fact that it is raining on the final weekend of the driest Santa Anita Park meeting in recent history. Thank goodness for irrigation.

The storm will supply just enough give in the ground to make the closing day San Juan Capistrano Invitational a sufficiently robust tour of the entire Santa Anita turf course. At nearly 1 3/4 miles, the race officially qualifies these days as a dinosaur. But to end the meet with anything less would betray a grand chunk of California racing history.

Ron McAnally will try to win the third San Juan of his Hall of Fame career Sunday with Sweet Return. Sweet Return is an unlikely candidate, since most of his success has come at eight to 10 furlongs, and the farther he goes, the more he needs a pace without pressure. Four of his five major stakes victories have been on the lead. Still, he has McAnally in his corner and Alex Solis along for the ride, a combo that worked to perfection for Sweet Return in such major events as the Eddie Read Handicap and the Whittingham Memorial.

"I've got to give it a try if I'm ever going to catch Charlie," McAnally said Friday morning as a steady rain fell in the area. He said it with a laugh, too, because nobody will ever touch Charlie Whittingham's 14 victories in the San Juan.

The Whittingham San Juans began in 1957 with Corn Husker for Liz Tippett and ended in 1989 with Nasr al Arab for Sheikh Mohammed. Charlie also finished second six times in San Juans he didn't win with some other horse. For the record, his other winners were Royal Living, Fiddle Isle (in a dead-heat with Quicken Tree), Cougar II, Practicante, La Zanzara, Exceller, Obraztsovy, Erins Isle, Load the Canons, Prince True, Dahar and Rosedale.

Some of them were champions and some were one-hit wonders. But Whittingham had them perfect on the day to plumb the depths of their Thoroughbred hearts. On Sunday, in-house fans will be treated to video tributes to Whittingham and his San Juans throughout the afternoon. Later on, the field for this year's 68th running will parade past the bronze countenance of Whittingham in the paddock, on their way to the grandstand tunnel. Friday may have marked the eighth anniversary of Whittingham's death, at the age of 86, but he will always own the San Juan.

One of the few Whittingham did not win came in 1962, when Olden Times defeated Juanro and The Axe II in a marathon nailbiter. If Sweet Return wants inspiration for Sunday's challenge, he should be watching this one on a 24-hour loop.

Olden Times was a precocious young sprinter for Rex Ellsworth and Mesh Tenney who later developed into a miler good enough to win the 1964 Metropolitan Handicap over Quadrangle. In March 1962, they tossed the 4-year-old Olden Times into the San Juan and asked Bill Shoemaker to produce a 14-furlong miracle. Which of course he did.

"I was there that day," said McAnally, a 29-year-old fledgling trainer at the time. "I could not believe it - Shoemaker taking a sprinter a mile and three-quarters. That was the most fantastic ride I've ever seen. But you've got to have the horse to go along with the ride."

By now, Sweet Return qualifies as a local institution. He is an unmistakable personality, morning or afternoon, always dressed in white-face and stockings, with his chestnut coat now starting to go a reddish gray. He was bred in England and raced at second-tier British tracks as a 2-year-old before being purchased by John Brunetti, former president of Hialeah Park, and then making his California debut for McAnally in January 2003. Now, an entire horse at age 7, he won't go away.

McAnally chose the San Juan for Sweet Return over the upcoming Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park based on the competition. Even though the horse won the 2004 Kilroe Mile in top company, defeating eventual Breeders' Cup Mile winner Singletary, he is clearly more comfortable against the miler type of opposition he found in the lesser Thunder Road Handicap at Santa Anita in February. A subsequent trip to New Orleans for the Mervin Muniz Handicap resulted in a modest fifth.

"It was towards the end of the meeting, and they were putting a lot of sand on the course, so it was real cuppy," McAnally said. "He doesn't really like that. But this rain shouldn't bother him for Sunday. Remember the day before he won the Hollywood Derby it rained."

McAnally took the San Juan with John Henry in 1980 and with Amerique in 1998. John Henry was a free-wheeling 5-year-old when he won going wire to wire, which is the only scenario that would seem to put Sweet Return anywhere near the winner's circle at the end of Sunday's run. His most recent work told McAnally that he may be at his stubborn best.

"He's mature, so he's smart," McAnally said. "And he's not much of a work horse. So we worked him with a filly the other day and gave him a head start. The boy on the filly said he came up to him and thought he was going to scoot on by, but Sweet Return wouldn't let him."

Now let's see if he can do it for real.