08/04/2003 12:00AM

'Paradise' earns taste of victory


DEL MAR, Calif. - There are easier ways to make a living than trying to take the lead in a 1 1/16-mile race at Del Mar from the outside post in a field of eight. Bear baiting and alligator wrestling come immediately to mind.

Adventure usually awaits those who dare. Still, it was a sound strategy, figured John Sadler, since Del Mar's main track has been leaning toward speed, especially going two turns, and Sadler's horse, Taste of Paradise, had the gas to get it done.

Anyway, Sadler was safely tucked away in the stands late Sunday afternoon as the runners left the gate for the $250,000 San Diego Handicap. It was Victor Espinoza who had the job of angling Taste of Paradise from the 8-hole to the lead in the face of such forward-thinking horses as Western Pride, Joey Franco, Gondolieri, and Legendary Weave.

There was drama, and it was not entirely unexpected. As the turn began, Patrick Valenzuela, riding Joey Franco, gave a holler when he suddenly found himself perilously close to Taste of Paradise's heels. Valenzuela leaned halfway off the saddle in an attempt to control his horse. There were shouts of alarm. Espinoza, by then established on the lead, whipped his head around to check the commotion. Up in the stands, Sadler held his breath.

"Oh? There was trouble?" The trainer said later, playing innocent. "I didn't ask Victor anything about it. The less I knew the better. I was just happy they didn't hang up an inquiry."

As it turned out, Valenzuela said Joey Franco was bearing out badly on the turn, creating his own situation. Once the field made it to the backstretch, all hands accounted for, Taste of Paradise and Espinoza cruised easily on the lead, afforded all the respect a 37-1 shot deserves. By the time the rest of the pack took them seriously, it was too late.

"I guess," Sadler said, "that's one of the benefits of being a longshot."

Nothing truly pointed to Taste of Paradise winning the San Diego other than a stray Del Mar line from 11 months ago and his trainer's forthright respect. The colt is a classic "we've always thought he was a nice horse" kind of horse who finally got his chance to prove it.

Taste of Paradise was a close second to Joey Franco in the 2002 El Cajon Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, and Joey Franco was favored in the San Diego. Their paths, however, diverged dramatically after that El Cajon. While Joey Franco went on to become a major stakes winner, Taste of Paradise did not resurface for eight months.

It was a blow to his owners and breeders, Keith Abrahams and Paul Bloom, but it was hardly a surprise. As a son of Conquistador Cielo, Taste of Paradise came with the standard equipment of the family - class, speed, and bad shins.

"He's had chronic shins," Sadler noted. "Soft, kind of like a typical Conquistador Cielo. He was out once at 2 and then once again at 3. With the good ones, it's something you just have to be prepared for, and have the patience to give them the time they need when they need it."

Once healthy and back in the game this spring, Taste of Paradise found other ways to plague his people. He pulled a shoe in the starting gate of the Bay Meadows Sprint Handicap in June, then broke through the gates completely at Hollywood Park in July.

"I've never had a horse do that," Sadler said. "He was mad, really angry, and didn't want to run very good after that. When we got down here to Del Mar, we stood him in the gate a lot. Just working with him that way helped, I think.

"We already knew he likes this track," Sadler added. "So I trained him hard for this meet, the San Diego came up, and we took a little shot."


Stevens fulfills fatherly duties

Gary Stevens has been spreading himself thin lately, devoting weeks of promotional work to the "Seabiscuit" movie and cultivating possible acting projects of his own, while at the same time trying to maintain his position among the elite stakes riders in the game.

The precarious Stevens juggling act was going just fine until last weekend, and then his 14-year-old son, Riley, had to be hospitalized with a serious infection resulting from a tooth abscess. By Sunday, Riley was stabilized, and by Monday, the swelling from the infection was going down.

"He's a fighter, just like his dad," Stevens said Sunday. "He's not happy at all with what's going on. The poor guy's face was so swollen you couldn't tell his nose from his cheek."

Stevens fulfilled his Sunday mounts, but he canceled a trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., that night. Stevens had agreed to make the official introduction of Mike Smith during the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Monday morning.

"Gary really wanted to go, but when this happened with Riley, it was a no-brainer," said Craig O'Bryan, Stevens's agent. "He'll be staying close until Riley is out of the woods."