07/31/2003 12:00AM

Motley crew assembled for San Diego


DEL MAR, Calif. - The Whitney Handicap Saturday at Saratoga and the San Diego Handicap Sunday at Del Mar have at least one thing in common. Azeri isn't running in either race.

Beyond that, the Whitney is getting all the ink. Saratoga's got the one-two finishers from last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. They've got national TV and the Hall of Fame weekend and a swarm of suits from the NTRA. The whole world will be watching.

Del Mar is countering on Saturday with "Seabiscuit Day," a modest little promotion, hooked to the Universal Studios movie, that will be putting breakable Seabiscuit mugs in the hands of jittery racing fans. Short of exhuming the old boy from his secret resting place under a tree in northern California and shipping him south, it's not a bad idea. And the San Diego would be Seabiscuit's kind of race.

They are gathering from all walks of racing life for the 1 1/16-mile contest on the main track. Sprinters, former claimers, speedballs, and closers, all of them angling for that 60 percent of a $250,000 pot. Seabiscuit won that much, but it took him about 75 starts to do it.

Reba's Gold, owned by Alex Trebek, is a natural. After all, he won the Seabiscuit Handicap by a pole at Bay Meadows last May, covering the San Diego distance in a smart 1:41 and change.

Publication has undergone a personality change, morphing from a promising 2-year-old (fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile), to an underachieving Midwestern 3-year-old, to a sprinting California 4-year-old with a serious late kick.

Western Pride has the glossiest resume, littered with such names as Congaree, Mineshaft, Milwaukee Brew, and Street Cry. If any of that has rubbed off, he should be as tough as he was last April, when he won the San Bernardino Handicap at Santa Anita.

Danthebluegrassman, back in form after a break, has the distinction of having been both entered and scratched from the Kentucky Derby, which is odd, because half of his six lifetime wins have come at Churchill Downs.

Then there is Joey Franco, named in a roundabout way for Jerry Frankel, his owner and breeder. Frankel made his fortune in the New York garment trade, as well as investing wisely in Broadway shows, and would once in a while get somebody on his office phone asking for the boss - you know, that guy "Joey Franco." Close enough.

This time last year, Joey Franco was a 3-year-old on the rise. He won the El Cajon Stakes at the San Diego distance, marking his fourth win in five starts. Then temptation called - Indiana, actually - and things went south, after a disastrous trip to Hoosier Park for the Indiana Derby.

"It was terrible," said David Hofmans, who had developed Joey Franco to that point. "The weather was hot and humid. He didn't ship very well at all. Then he got kicked at some point when he was on the track just before the race, which I didn't find out about until after the race was run."

Indiana took the starch out of Joey Franco. Running in a couple of big, rowdy fields after that didn't help, and he was nowhere to be found in either the Cal Cup Mile or the Sunshine Millions Sprint. By last March, Frankel decided to switch trainers. Darrell Vienna got the call.

After a career's worth of experience winning races with imported grass horses (Short Sleeves, Drumalis, Janet), long-distance runners (Mountain Bear, Fly Till Dawn), and even a 2-year-old champion (Gilded Times), Vienna has suddenly become the go-to guy for sprinters. Echo Eddie, Above Perfection, and Disturbingthepeace were the barn leaders in 2002, and Joey Franco has followed suit.

The farthest he has run for Vienna is 7 1/2 furlongs, while most of his San Diego competition is proven at the route. Therefore, the question lingers: Can he get the extra furlong of Saturday's race under stern conditions?

"I don't know," confessed Vienna. "I'm hoping he can, if he will relax. He was a little nervous after we first got him, but that might have been the new surroundings. Once he settled down, he's been fine."

Joey Franco is a dark bay with white hind anklets, built like a Thoroughbred who could sprint the rest of his life but wouldn't mind trying the occasional route. In his last three starts for Vienna, Joey Franco has won races named for Tiznow, Ack Ack, and Triple Bend, all of them winners of the 10-furlong Santa Anita Handicap, among other major distance races. If nothing else, Vienna has presented the colt with inspirational role models.

"I wish I could say we did something to turn him around," Vienna said Thursday morning as Joey Franco breezed a half-mile for the San Diego. "But he came to us in beautiful condition. I have to think he was on the upswing at the time, and we just got lucky."

The San Diego will test that luck.