04/11/2004 11:00PM

Once again, California Derby lacking luster

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SAN MATEO, Calif. - It was once the centerpiece of one of the biggest days on the northern California racing schedule.

California Derby Day in 1974 resulted in the first $2 million handle day in northern California. The 1977 edition, which included the northern California debut of jockey Steve Cauthen, set the highest northern California attendance since the 1960's, a crowd of 26,108.

Now, as it approaches its 90th running Saturday at Bay Meadows, the California Derby seems one step away from being dropped to overnight stakes status because its significance has ebbed and its fields have grown weaker.

The California Derby never had much impact as a Kentucky Derby prep.

After Screaming Don scored a $103.60 California Derby upset in 1994, trainer Lanny Sharp was asked if the victory had him considering the Derby, and he replied, "Yes, we're going to the Colorado Derby."

In the mid-1990's, the California Derby was moved to the turf and was briefly scheduled after the Kentucky Derby. It was replaced by the El Camino Real Derby, which has become a true Kentucky Derby prep, producing the winners of seven Triple Crown races as well as two Kentucky Derby runners-up.

Saturday's 1 1/8-mile California Derby could wind up with as few as five runners, or as many as 10. The field is expected to include several late-blooming youngsters, including Capitano, Melanyhaspapers, and Trieste's Honor.

Dates decision: It's not easy

The dates committee of the California Horse Racing Board faces a tough decision in awarding the 2005 northern California race dates.

On Thursday, both Magna Entertainment Corp., which leases Bay Meadows and owns Golden Gate Fields, and Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns Bay Meadows and leases it to Magna, applied for dates.

The current lease agreement between Magna and Bay Meadows Land Co. expires on Dec. 31. In the meantime, Bay Meadows Land Co. has formed its own management group.

One thing both seem to agree on is that something must be done to equalize the number of dates each track runs during the November-March rainy season in northern California.

Under the current schedule, most of the wet-weather dates are run at Golden Gate Fields, which has always been considered a better dry-weather track, while the winterized Bay Meadows track, geared for wet weather since the installation of sports grids, is used in the spring and fall, when the weather typically is dry.

Jack Liebau, who resigned as Magna's California director of racing in January and was president of Bay Meadows before that, represented Bay Meadows Land Co. at the dates meeting.

Liebau's dates request mirrored the current allocation, with Bay Meadows running two meets, from the end of March through June and from September to the end of October. Golden Gate Fields would then run from November through late March.

Liebau suggested at the dates meeting that the board consider going back to shorter meets, holding two meets a year at both Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields. He said that would distribute wet weather days more equally between the two tracks.

Peter Tunney, representing Magna, also requested a schedule meant to even out the wet weather dates. In his plan, Golden Gate Fields would run from Dec. 26, 2004, to May 15, 2005. Magna would then hold a one-month meet at Bay Meadows, from May 18 to June 19, and race there again from Sept. 1 to Dec. 19. That proposal would result in Golden Gate Fields running for 133 straight dates, with its 2005 dates added on to the dates it has for November and December of this year.

Most trainers agree that one track shouldn't be stuck with all of the wet-weather dates.

Both Tunney and Liebau said they agree that it makes sense for Golden Gate to run concurrently with Santa Anita and Bay Meadows with Hollywood Park, because both Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park offer Friday night racing.

* Sprinter Our Mango will attempt to go one mile for only the second time in her career in Wednesday's $50,000 optional claiming feature at Bay Meadows. She ran third after setting the pace against similar earlier this year in her only try at the distance. She will have to hold off Lucky Sabre, winless at a mile since the Vallejo Stakes 14 months ago.

* Jockey Dennis Carr was suspended five days (April 15-21) for careless riding aboard Reality Cat in last Friday's third race. Carr's mount was not disqualified.