03/07/2002 12:00AM

Mile win down, extra quarter to go?

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Already written off by many as a non-stayer, Came Home won his second graded stakes of the year in the San Rafael at Santa Anita last Saturday. A handsome bay, Came Home showed speed when needed and had the authority to dominate his field as effectively as he had in the San Vicente four weeks earlier.

Many handicappers were put off the colt because his only defeat had come in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at 1 1/16 miles, but on pedigree he should be more effective racing at a mile than six furlongs.

Came Home is by the outstanding sire Gone West and out of a good stakes-winning mare by Clever Trick. Neither of those influences dictate offspring that will be seriously limited in distance ability. Particularly among their best offspring, Gone West and Clever Trick are more usually responsible for horses with speed that they can carry a mile and sometimes more.

Gone West, for instance, has sired not only Zafonic, winner of the 2000 Guineas over the straight mile at Newmarket, but also Commendable, who won the Belmont Stakes at 12 furlongs. So the potential is there for Came Home to race well at longer distances, but as with all the other classic hopefuls, each step up in distance is a challenge that has to be answered.

The people closest to Gone West have no illusions about the hurdles a young colt faces on the trail to the Derby. As his co-owner and co-breeder, Trudy McCaffery, said, "Last weekend was a big step, but we have another race before we go to the Derby. I haven't bought my hat yet."

The next challenge for Came Home is the Santa Anita Derby at nine furlongs, and Alice Chandler, who stands Gone West at Mill Ridge Farm, said, "Came Home is very similar to Gone West, same make and shape, and I can certainly see him getting a mile and an eighth."

Gone West himself won the Dwyer at nine furlongs, as well as the Gotham and Withers at a mile. And as any practical horseman will tell you, stamina is not simply a matter of pedigree. A very significant part of a horse's stamina comes from his conditioning, mental attitude to racing, and his efficiency of motion.

Came Home is trained by Paco Gonzalez, and Chandler noted that "Paco has done a great job with this colt. Came Home shows you that he's really happy and doing well, and when I saw him in the paddock at Saratoga before the Hopeful last year, he was such a confident, people-person sort of horse. He just makes you want to pet him."

McCaffery also commented on the colt's training and the maturity it has brought to his attitude for racing. She said, "He's very mature for a 3-year-old. He doesn't dash off now, like he did in the Breeders' Cup. He broke very sharply on Saturday but rated beautifully." When jockey Chris McCarron asks him for his run, McCaffery said, "Came Home gives his all."

She continued, "Half the battle in getting young horses right is dealing with their minds. But Came Home is very classy and smart. He goes to the track in the morning, then comes back and has a two-hour nap."

Came Home has been as right as a colt needs to be in his two starts this year, and McCaffery and her partners in him have reason to dream. If he succeeds in Kentucky, the colt would be worth a few times his weight in gold. He didn't sell when offered at auction, however, and got his name because he came home.

"He didn't sell because he's supposedly too small," McCaffery said. "He's not particularly big, but he is beautifully balanced, and he's taller than you'd think when you walk up to him."

A neatly made colt, Came Home runs with an easy and efficient stride that eats up his opponents when he moves on the turn for home. Gonzalez noted last year after the colt's victory over Mayakovsky in the Hopeful that he was small but had a big stride. That has made the difference in all but one of his starts to date.

Even if Came Home indicates that the Derby distance may be more than he wants, all is not lost. There are some very prestigious miles in May. If Johannesburg comes to Kentucky for the Derby, Came Home might venture abroad for Newmarket's classic mile, or he could take a shorter plane ride to New York and tackle his elders in the Metropolitan Handicap, where he should get a very nice break in the weights.