11/07/2005 1:00AM

New life for McCann's Mojave

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The gritty performance of McCann's Mojave in the $250,000 California Cup Classic on Sunday, closing day of the Oak Tree meet, proved once again that Thoroughbreds are nothing more than four-legged answers just waiting for the right questions to be asked.

The star of the Cal Cup festival, McCann's Mojave was bred and is owned by Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman and his partner, Alix Hunt, and trained by Paddy Gallagher, a son of Northern Ireland's County Tyrone.

Through three solid seasons, McCann's Mojave had developed a reputation as an earnest sprinter who could turn on the gas with some of the fastest boys in town. He was never intimidated by quarters in 21 seconds and change, half-miles in 44. Bring it on! McCann's Mojave would flail away, all legs and long blaze, holding his own against such bona fide barnburners as Unfurl the Flag, Woke Up Dreamin, Hombre Rapido, and Bluesthestandard.

His best race might have been a noble losing effort at seven furlongs in the 2004 Churchill Downs Handicap. Running on Kentucky Derby Day, McCann's Mojave beat them all except for the eventual Eclipse Award sprint champ, Speightstown.

That was then - the old McCann's Mojave. Now meet the new model, hatched in the Classic as California's latest contribution to middle-distance entertainment. His victory at 1 1/8 miles was a thoroughly professional piece of work, submitted for public consideration as if he had been doing it all his life. It was, in fact, his first start around two turns in more than 2 1/2 years. Who would have guessed?

Well, for one, Leonard Dorfman, and Alex Solis, as well. Both of them had confidence that the experiment would be a rousing success, and both of them watched it happen on television.

Solis was named to ride McCann's Mojave in the Classic when Cal Cup entries were taken the Thursday before the race. Then, on Friday, Solis did a favor for some friends and filled in for an absent Garrett Gomez on the Bill Spawr-trained filly Lake of Gold in the fourth race of the afternoon. Approaching the eighth pole, Lake of Gold fractured a leg and went down, causing a trailing horse to stumble over the fallen horse and jockey. Solis was nailed in the knee by a flying hoof and ended up missing both the weekend cards.

"I can't complain," Solis said Monday morning, his knee in much better shape. "Bill Spawr always puts me on good horses, but things like that happen. If you start worrying about it, you end up missing a lot in life."

Solis was replaced by Jose Valdivia Jr., who had been riding McCann's Mojave until a knee injury knocked him out at Del Mar. Valdivia credited Solis with offering good advice during his recuperation, and was back in action on the same Friday that Solis went down.

"I was really looking forward to riding that horse in the Cal Cup," Solis said, referring to McCann's Mojave. "Paddy did the right thing running him long, where he can get the lead and get his confidence back. Those old horses, when they get to be that age, they don't want that much pressure if they don't have to take it. He found himself in a situation where he didn't have to go 21, 43, and he got brave. He already had the heart."

Len Dorfman trained McCann's Mojave through the first 10 starts of his career, carefully working around stifle problems that limited his competitive appearances. Dorfman took a break from training earlier this year (the slacker - he's only 83), at which point McCann's Mojave was turned over to Gallagher.

"Didn't that horse run great yesterday?" was the first thing Dorfman said, right after hello, when he was reached at home Monday morning.

"If you're around that horse, you've got to fall in love with him," Dorfman went on. "He's just as kind as a horse could be. I thought he was a winner when they turned onto the backstretch. He was more or less relaxed, and they weren't hustling him like he'd done in his sprints. And sprinting was what he always thought he had to do.

"I always thought he'd be a good route horse, though," he added. "What convinced me was the day I ran him a mile. It was only his third start, and he was still a green horse. He ran such a game race. Horses were ganged up on him from the quarter pole to the finish line and he still won."

It would be nice if the Cal Cup Classic marked the beginning of a new career for McCann's Mojave, not to mention an entertaining boost to the ranks of quality middle-distance runners on the Southern California circuit. His sire, the Chilean runner Memo, was effective from six to 8 1/2 furlongs.

"We'd always been thinking about stretching him out," Gallagher said. "I know it was Cal Cup, just for Cal-breds and all, but if they can win sprinting and win going a mile and an eighth, it doesn't matter where they're bred. You've got a nice horse.

"Then again," Gallagher added, "where I come from, a mile and an eighth is a sprint."