08/21/2003 11:00PM

Out west, Ascanio runs the show


DEL MAR, Calif. - Bob Chin dropped by Humberto Ascanio's table the other night at Chin's world-famous suburban Chicago fish restaurant to inquire about the quality of the food and the service. Ascanio said everything was great. Then Chin asked for a winner.

"I was eating with Jose Valdivia and David Flores," Ascanio said. "Jose says, 'I'm going to win the Beverly D.,' and David says, 'And I'm going to win the Million.'"


Ascanio usually keeps good company, so the story should come as no surprise. The following day, Valdivia rode Heat Haze to victory in the $700,000 Beverly D. for Ascanio's boss, Bobby Frankel, while Flores got the prize with Sulamani in the Million, with a significant assist from the erratic and disqualified Storming Home.

Ascanio was standing near the winner's circle, right on the Arlington finish line, when Gary Stevens fell from Storming Home and landed in the path of numerous oncoming hooves. Ascanio admits to averting his eyes.

"When I looked he was on the ground, horses kicking him around like a rag doll," Ascanio said. "I never saw anything like it."

As the No. 1 assistant to North America's No. 1 trainer, Ascanio often finds himself in the middle of racing's most important action. Frankel trusts Humberto without a second thought, and the results bear out that trust. Ascanio's California branch of the bicoastal Frankel operation is almost as full of stakes stars as the New York division.

On Sunday, in the $1 million Pacific Classic, the Frankel-Ascanio team will try to win the race for a seventh time. This is a significant stat because the Classic was born in 1991, making it the youngest of the major U.S. races for the 1 1/4-mile main-track monsters. An impressive half of the Classics have gone to Frankel-Ascanio: Missionary Ridge in 1992, Bertrando in 1993, Tinners Way in 1994 and 1995, and Skimming in 2000 and 2001.

They will be trying to do something different this year, however. Frankel-Ascanio will be trying to win the Pacific Classic with an East Coast shipper, a difficult task that has been beyond the abilities of such bona fide stars as Touch Gold, Concern, Unbridled, and even Cigar, whose 16-race winning streak ended in the 1996 version of the race.

Frankel has sent Medaglia d'Oro and Milwaukee Brew westward from Saratoga for the Classic. Neither is a stranger to Southern California - Medaglia d'Oro won the 2003 Strub Stakes, and Milwaukee Brew has won consecutive Santa Anita Handicaps. So call them expatriates if you like. The fact remains that neither horse has seen a Pacific sunset since last May, when Frankel took them under his wing in New York.

After winning the subsequent Oaklawn Handicap, Medaglia d'Oro came up with a nasty gash in his left front hoof, a self-inflicted wound that knocked him out of the public eye for more than four months. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Brew took the grand prize at Santa Anita last winter, then picked up a bug that turned into pneumonia. As a result, he lost the same four months.

Ascanio welcomed both travelers back into the fold this week and was pleased with what he saw. Milwaukee Brew, a 6-year-old by Wild Again, is a straightforward old trooper who tends to fire every time. He returned to win an Aug. 3 allowance race at Monmouth Park in preparation for the Pacific Classic. Medaglia d'Oro, just 4, is still a handsome work in progress. He looked the part in his return, defeating Volponi in the Whitney Handicap on Aug. 2.

"Yes, I think he has changed since last winter," Ascanio said of Medaglia d'Oro. "He's more mature, more relaxed, than he was before."

Medaglia d'Oro was walking by on the tow ring, still muddy in spots from Wednesday's line of tropical squalls. The colt was in the same fine flesh he displayed last winter at Santa Anita, when Frankel practically predicted a streak of unbroken brilliance in the handicap division. That was just before he passed the Santa Anita Handicap because of the weights.

"The foot is okay, growing down good," Ascanio said. "You can still see the patch. And you always have to be worried about a quarter crack, but we were lucky that didn't happen."

As for the East Coast shipper's jinx in the Pacific Classic, Ascanio stubbornly failed to see the connection. A Frankel barn is a Frankel barn is a Frankel barn. Even Bobby himself will be on the scene for the Classic this year.

"They were fit when they left," Ascanio said. "They had an easy flight, then a van ride here. They ship with their grooms, and when they get here they are used to the routine, the feed, everything looks the same. They've cleaned their tubs every day. I see no reason they won't run their race."

If they do, it will look very familiar.