07/25/2002 12:00AM

McAnally still in high gear


DEL MAR, Calif. - Ron McAnally has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1990. He has won the Eclipse Award as North America's leading trainer three times. He has trained five champions, including two-time Horse of the Year John Henry, and more Del Mar winners than any trainer in the 65-year history of the track.

Such accomplishments deserve at the very least a day off, a week on the beach, or a month in the country. McAnally's reaction?

"I was just thinking about it the other day," McAnally said from his balcony perch at his Del Mar barn. "There's a lot of guys moving by me on the fast lane. I've got to start moving faster."

A noble idea, but frankly impossible. At last check, each day still contains only 24 hours. McAnally has already spread himself generously among his horses, his clients, his family and his two homes in Tarzana and Rancho Santa Fe. He travels each year to Argentina, Brazil, England, Ireland, France, and Italy in search of fresh legs. He does penance at the major Kentucky sales, although not enthusiastically, since he would rather spend other people's money in pursuit of proven talent instead of boutique pedigree.

"You leave home to look at horses and people say, 'Have a nice vacation.' " McAnally shook his head. "Not at all. The only vacation you get is maybe a little time to relax at night with a bottle of wine and a good Italian meal."

In the Thoroughbred training game, the pressure to keep pace can be suffocating. Rewards are finite, available only to those who are willing to spend the most time in relentless pursuit. There are precious few who play at McAnally's level. And, yes, they do move fast.

At the age of 70 - he celebrated the milestone on July 11 - McAnally has reached a point that in most professions is more readily identified with retirement than the fast lane. For some reason, though, Thoroughbred trainers never got the memo.

Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons hit 70 in July of 1944 and never even paused to take a deep breath. He still had Bold Ruler and Nashua yet to train.

After he turned 70, in April of 1983, Charlie Whittingham exercised his option to continue gainful employment. The result was two Kentucky Derbies and four more champions.

In March of 1990, Jimmy Croll could have left the game at 70 having trained Mr. Prospector, Bet Twice, and Forward Gal. But Housebuster was just 3 at the time - can't walk away from that - and anyway, who would have been there three years later for Holy Bull?

McAnally has lots left to do, beginning on Saturday at Del Mar in the $400,000 John C. Mabee/Ramona Handicap with his one-two punch of Affluent and Snowflake. At 64 Del Mar stakes wins and counting, McAnally leads all active trainers and trails only Whittingham, who left the stage with 74.

In a simpler time, when it was merely the Ramona, McAnally won the race with the Argentine powerhouse Auspiciante (1986), the daisy-cutting Drama Critic (1978), and a division of an early version with Luz del Sol in 1969.

By then, McAnally was already a Del Mar veteran. He first hit the seaside during the summer of 1948 while working for his uncle, Reggie Cornell, and lived in a cozy adobe tackroom on the backstretch.

There wasn't much to Del Mar in those days. The population was less than a thousand. "Downtown" got its first traffic light on the corner of 15th and Highway 101. There was still a Del Mar pier, and a struggling Del Mar Hotel, while Tony's Jacal, soon to be the restaurant of choice for racetrackers, had just opened in Eden Gardens, a stone's throw from the backstretch.

"We would put on our trunks and take horses to the beach," McAnally said. "You had to be careful, because the path could get swampy going underneath the railroad tracks.

"The first thing a horse would do when they got to the beach was roll in the sand," he went on. "Horses are natural swimmers, but I remember at least one who swam out to sea and drowned. And there were a lot of loose horses running down Via de la Valle."

McAnally and the rest of the Ramona cast are grateful this week that Astra is taking a pass. Laura de Seroux continues to point the West's best grass mare toward the Beverly D. at Arlington Park on Aug. 17. Still, that does not mean the Ramona will be easy pickings.

Defending champ Janet and 2001 Del Mar Oaks winner Golden Apples lead a field that includes Surya, Canzone, and Crazy Ensign, along with the McAnally mares. Snowflake set a mad pace in the Beverly Hills Handicap last time out and melted when Astra attacked, while Affluent has spent 2002 running in the shadow of Azeri on the main track, with seconds in the Vanity, Milady, and Apple Blossom in her last three starts.

"It gets frustrating," McAnally said, "for both the horse and the trainer."

Give it time, though. With more experience, maybe the game gets easier.