09/02/2004 11:00PM

McAnally still the king of Del Mar


DEL MAR, Calif. - The real world is not supposed to get in the way of Thoroughbred racing, better known as Fantasy Island. It is okay, therefore, that the substance of the Republican Party platform is not the talk of the backstretch, or that the fallout from the recent presidential referendum in Venezuela has yet to penetrate the turf club chitchat.

But when two Russian planes were blown out of the sky last week, followed closely by a Moscow subway bombing and a grade-school hostage crisis in a town near the Chechnyan border, Julio Canani had heard enough. In the midst of his most successful Del Mar meet ever, he dropped what he was doing, turned the barn over to his experienced staff, and hopped a plane to Germany on Tuesday in order to bring home his Russian-born wife, Svetlana, and their two daughters, who were visiting in-laws in Russia.

"You think I want my family over there with all that going on?" Canani said. "My baby is 2 years old. I had to go get them myself."

Back home in California, safe and sound, Canani can now concentrate on trying to win his fourth Del Mar Derby, the highlight of the Labor Day holiday program Monday, with the race favorite Blackdoun. Canani won previous local Derbies with Silver Circus in 1988, Ladies Din in 1998, and Val Royal in 1999.

A fourth victory would set Canani apart from the three other trainers who have won the race three times: Charlie Whittingham, Farrell Jones, and Ron McAnally. Those guys pretty much represent a Del Mar version of Mount Rushmore - McAnally is the all-time leader in wins, Whittingham tops the all-time stakes list, and Jones won a record 11 Del Mar training titles - so it is only fitting that if Canani is going to join them, he has to beat the one still adding to his impressive numbers.

McAnally won his first Del Mar Derby in 1989 with Hawkster, a slight colt of considerable speed. The trainer came back the following year with Tight Spot, who was disqualified for interference, reinstated when the stewards were reversed, then finally recorded as the official winner after nearly two years worth of appeals. McAnally likes to call that Derby the longest race he has ever won.

Last summer, a deeply entertaining batch of young turf horses gathered for the derby - among them Singletary, Sweet Return, Devious Boy, and Fairly Ransom - and put on a terrific show. Fairly Ransom, trained by McAnally and owned by Arnold Zetcher, mastered his tender feet long enough to be best on the day.

This time around, McAnally and Zetcher will be unveiling Fast and Furious, a French son of Singspiel who is named for a Vin Diesel movie and bred for the Olympic marathon. Back home in old Europe, Fast and Furious was running 10 and 12 furlongs while North America's 3-year-olds were being "stretched" to get 1 1/8 miles.

In Monday's Del Mar Derby, 1 1/8 miles is all that is required, which might give the advantage to horses who have been running rings around California's tight turf tracks. The last time Fast and Furious competed was in June, at the provincial Toulouse, in a race at 1 1/2 miles. It has been McAnally's job to Americanize Fast and Furious without discouraging his true nature.

"I think he's genuine," McAnally said. "He travels good, gallops real smooth, and he never showed any of the things you sometimes see when they come from over there. He was never jet-laggy. His appetite has been good. He's seems to take everything in stride."

Fast and Furious is only the most recent in a long line of European stakes runners handled by McAnally. But like any good fisherman, he enjoys the occasional tale of the one that got away. One of them was a colt named Singspiel, trained by Michael Stoute and owned by Sheikh Mohammed.

"I had my guys packed and on the way to England to finish the deal," McAnally said. "They were asking $2 million. Then, in 12 hours, it went up to $3 million. Not 2.1 or 2.2. Three million! As it turned out, he would have been worth it."

Singspiel stayed put and went on to win the Japan Cup, the Dubai World Cup, and nearly $6 million. His career ended when he broke down on a foggy grass course training at Hollywood Park for the 1997 Breeders' Cup Turf, for which he would have been favored. Fast and Furious is a member of his third crop.

McAnally was especially pleased with the way Fast and Furious finished his seven-furlong work on the grass last week, described by the trainer as "24 on the outside fence." Such a closing kick, done in hand, should translate well in any grass race against contemporary 3-year-olds. And the Del Mar Derby is a race that goes, more often than not, to the colt who gets in the final punch.