04/22/2002 12:00AM

Miracle of 'San Juan' Garcia


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The winner of the 2002 San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap is a leggy, long-winded California-bred gelding who was sold in Florida, named for an Irish seaport, and is now trained by a Mexican caballero.

Before last Sunday, Ringaskiddy was simply a quiet town on Cork Harbor whose only claim to fame was as the home of a Pfizer Pharmaceuticals subsidiary, where such popular drugs as Zoloft and Viagra are manufactured.

Ringaskiddy needed neither on Sunday. Finishing like a scalded cat, he knifed through a scattered field to finish the 14 furlongs of the San Juan Capistrano faster than he began, leaving Stage Post, Continental Red, Cagney, and Keemoon strewn about the Santa Anita turf course like so much unsightly litter.

Nothing Ringaskiddy had done before suggested he had the potential to find himself alone at the end of Santa Anita's most prestigious grass event. Wth 18 seconds and thirds to go along with just five wins in 44 previous starts, he was clearly a horse who enjoyed company.

But he also loves a distance of firm ground, which is exactly what he got on Sunday. His ability to win the longest race of significance in North America is a further tribute to the breeding program of Robert and Barbara Walter and their relatively small operation near the northern California town of Sebastopol.

"We named him Shalo Slew," Barbara Walter said Sunday night while consulting her detailed records. "But we sold him before we ever ran him. I see he was given a 'D+' and it's in red, which meant he was given that grade by one of our gurus."

As a son of the Seattle Slew stallion Slewvescent and the Halo mare Halo at Dawn, "Shalo Slew" had a right to be a runner. He came from the same Slewvescent crop as Tout Charmant, a multiple big race winner on grass. Alas, some wines take longer than others to mature.

A bid of $21,000 at the Ocala sale of 2-year-olds in April of 1998 bought Frank Keegan the right to rename his new horse Ringaskiddy and turn him over to trainer John Forbes. Pat McBurney is Forbes's chief assistant. He remembers their Cal-bred well.

"He was a pretty little dark colt," McBurney said of the 2-year-old Ringaskiddy. "By the time he was 3, we thought he was worth about $75,000, and we were looking at maybe selling him back to someone in California."

Good idea, but it had to wait for two more claims and a sale. Back home in California at age 4, Ringaskiddy was first trained by Bob Hess and then Jack Carava before he was claimed for $50,000 in January of 2001 by trainer Juan Garcia.

Under most conditions, Garcia would have waited for the Quicken Tree Stakes for California-breds on Gold Rush Day this coming Sunday, one of the highlights of Hollywood Park's opening week. After all, Ringaskiddy is the defending champ.

But he ran so well in the San Luis Rey Handicap last month that the Capistrano was the place to be. And while sainthood is hardly automatic after such an accomplishment, who can blame the guys at the Garcia barn now for calling their boss "San Juan?"

So, Denman's not infallible after all?

The best race on Hollywood's opening day card Wednesday brings out Ladies Din and Thady Quill at a mile on the grass. They will be challenged by Startac, winner of the 2001 Secretariat Stakes and a card-carrying member of the soaring Laura de Seroux stable, home of both Astra and Azeri.

Astra picked up on Saturday in the Santa Barbara Handicap where Azeri left off in the Santa Margarita, and she was every bit as impressive as her younger stablemate. Perhaps that's why Trevor Denman lost track.

At every point of the 10-furlong Santa Barbara, Denman was on top of each subtle move made by Kent Desormeaux and every shift in Astra's position or pace, until they burst forth with a breathtaking final quarter that shaded 23 seconds.

He also called Astra "Azeri" every step of the way.

"I've probably called 100,000 races," Denman said the following day, still kicking himself for the mistake, "and that's the first time I've done that - called the wrong horse all the way around without catching it at some point. Of course, it couldn't happen in the third race on a quiet Thursday. It had to be in a big one."

This reporter will be the last to cast the first stone when someone as good as Denman slips up. You want to hear the greatest race call ever? Go find a bootleg copy of Denman's 1989 Preakness when he was working a season at Pimlico. No one is better day-in, day-out, and no one rises to a big race occasion better than Denman, which is why he called the Santa Barbara with such confidence and style.

"When you think you've got a name right, that's it," Denman said. "You could have been standing right beside me and whispered in my ear, 'That's Astra.' I would have waved you away. It was only after the race that I looked down at the program. Believe me, I was sick to my stomach."

Denman goes on holiday now until opening day at Del Mar. Believe me, he will be missed. And just for the record, he got Ringaskiddy right, although he was probably lucky the horse wasn't named in the native Gaelic. Rinn an Scidigh does not exactly tumble off the tongue.