03/28/2005 12:00AM

No entourage, just a great run


ARCADIA, Calif. - It wasn't exactly the Sharks and the Jets, but there was definitely a rumble brewing.

At one end of the Santa Anita walking ring, the worshipful followers of Star Over the Bay gathered, some two dozen strong, resplendent in their red and black outfits. At the other end, dressed in stylish taupes and navy blues, a small army of Meteor Storm's true believers milled and mumbled, waiting for the word to throw down.

Give it a name. The main event. It was Easter Sunday and a fat $200,000 was in the plate, along with the right to be called the winner of the San Luis Rey - "Your Horse Here" - chiseled alongside such everlasting heroes as John Henry, Kotashaan, Perrault, Sandpit, Prized, Fiddle Isle, and Quicken Tree.

There was no mistaking the mood. Here were the two most accomplished long-distance California grass horses of 2004, finally meeting head to head, going a mile and a half on fast ground, under sunny skies.

Meteor Storm had won the '04 San Luis Rey, the San Juan Capistrano, then bagged Belmont's Manhattan, adapting his classic, European education to the American style of competition. He bowed out last year after a disappointing run in the United Nations, but a sharp race in the recent Kilroe Mile put Meteor Storm back on the radar.

Star Over the Bay, an $80,000 claim in May of 2004, went onward and upward to win the Sunset at Hollywood, the Del Mar Handicap, and the Clement Hirsch during the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, proving once again that unchallenged speed is a transferable skill, and that white horses on the lead are a sight to behold.

After sinking into the soft ground in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Lone Star, Star Over the Bay returned this year to win the Sunshine Millions Turf, on network TV, no less. For the San Luis Rey, the syndicate engaged a light plane to trail an airborne banner proclaiming, "Catch Him If You Can! - Star Over the Bay." Occasionally, one of the Meteor Storm crew would glance skyward.

Flanked on both sides by the roiling syndicates, a bemused Jerry Moss gazed across the walking ring from his 6-foot-4 vantage point and smiled at all the commotion. He was accompanied by his wife, Ann, and their racing manager, Dottie Ingordo - a pretty low-key posse - but they also brought the muscle, better known as Stanley Park.

"Well, we don't have uniforms," Moss replied when asked about his team. "I just hope we've got the horse."

Did they ever.

Star of the Bay ran his race, taking the field down the hill, around the flat, and into the stretch, hitting the lane still on the lead. That is where Meteor Storm attacked, and for a moment the two favorites ran together, delivering the drama as advertised.

Then, with a sudden sweep to the outside, Stanley Park's shadow roll appeared at Meteor Storm's flank. Gary Stevens later described his horse making "a five-eighths run," but it was well disguised, and Stanley Park went on to shade 24 seconds for his final quarter. That was enough to beat runner-up Meteor Storm by a length and Star Over the Bay, who was fifth, by three.

Last year, while Meteor Storm and Star Over the Bay were running the table, Stanley Park was bemoaning his wasted youth, recovering from a chip in a hind pastern and a nagging quarter crack. Things had been going so well, too, with a victory in the 2003 Bay Meadows Derby and a terrific run in the '03 Hollywood Derby stampede.

Through it all, trainer John Shirreffs kept Stanley Park's spirits up, promising big things down the line if he would just mellow out a little bit and let time heal his wounds.

"I think his injuries were young-horse problems," Shirreffs said. "The bones aren't mature, and those things happen. He also likes to kick. He's a big stud, he likes to fire out, so maybe he kicked the stall wall."

It's hard to believe a horse ever misbehaves around Shirreffs, an old-school graduate who always gives his animals the benefit of the doubt. In the Shirreffs stable, the horses are the stars and the trainer tries to stay invisible, although he did have the good taste to wear his best, dark-toned Hawaiian shirt for the San Luis Rey.

As usual, Shirreffs waved off the invitation to join the traditional winner's circle photo with Stanley Park. High above, the plane pulling the "Star Over the Bay" banner made another pass.

"Catch him if you can," the trainer mused. "Well, I guess someone caught him."

While Shirreffs can come off as slightly eccentric, he is merely paying closer attention to things the rest of us deem less important than postrace sound bites and bold predictions. The trainer did, however, let slip where he intended to run next. If all goes well, Stanley Park will mark Shirreffs's first runner in the prestigious San Juan Capistrano at 1 3/4 miles, on the final Saturday of the meet.

"I'd never run a horse in the San Luis Rey, either," Shirreffs said, making it sound like no big deal. "You've got to have the horse. It's the horse that makes the difference, not the trainer."

Now that is definitely eccentric.