01/08/2004 1:00AM

Planes, slots, and derbies


ARCADIA, Calif. - He was the road warrior of 2003. A four-legged travel poster. The horse for all regions.

Excessivepleasure climbed aboard no fewer than 14 cargo planes last season, tack bag packed and stamped for such exotic destinations as Des Moines, El Paso, and Oklahoma City. Never once did he complain about jet lag, leg room, in-flight service, or lost luggage. Plane went up, plane went down, and Excessivepleasure spilled out, ready to run.

A compact dark bay with an intense personality to match, Excessivepleasure ran his best race often enough last year to win heartland derbies in New Mexico, Iowa, and Indiana and more than $800,000 in purses, thanks in large part to pots beefed up by slot machines.

"That's the secret to his success," said Ty Leatherman, who owns Excessivepleasure with his father, Lee. "Slots and an airplane."

Sounds simple, and anyone is welcome to give the formula a try. The hard fact remains, however, that Thoroughbreds do not always reproduce their best form when asked to wander far from their familiar stalls. It requires a special horse to withstand the stress of travel, along with the vagaries of weather and track condition.

"When you really look at him, it doesn't seem like he's got the tools to handle it," said Doug O'Neill, who trains Excessivepleasure. "He's got that In Excess mind where he always looks uptight and bouncing around, which doesn't really fit the stereotype of a great shipper.

"We always look not so much at how they run when they ship, but how they come back when they travel," O'Neill added. "He's one of those who never looks skinny, coat's never dry, and he never misses an oat."

Excessivepleasure calls O'Neill's Hollywood Park stable home. It was there, in November 2002, that he raced and won for the first time, against California-bred maidens. With a yearling price investment of just $17,000, the Leathermans were practically even already.

From there the colt jumped directly into restricted stakes company, winning the California Breeders' Champion Stakes at Santa Anita and then finishing second at Gulfstream in the inaugural Sunshine Millions Dash, his first taste of the road. The Florida experience went so well that O'Neill and the Leathermans set their sights far and wide.

"The idea was to nominate to everything, then weigh the pros and cons of each race based on the kind of opposition he might face, and if it would be worth the shipping costs were he to finish first or second," Ty Leatherman said. Each round trip, he noted, cost around $10,000.

Eight races and six tracks later, Excessivepleasure will be back at Santa Anita on Saturday for the $100,000 San Fernando Stakes, which has another $100,000 available to those starters eligible to the Breeders' Cup program. Excessivepleasure is not one of them.

Matching 4-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles, the San Fernando fits perfectly with Excessivepleasure's proven strengths. His richest victory, the $500,000 WinStar Derby at Sunland Park, was at 1 1/16 miles, as were both the Indiana Derby and the Iowa Derby.

The San Fernando also fits well with Excessivepleasure's pedigree. His sire, In Excess, made the 1991 San Fernando his first stakes win of a season that ended with victories in the Met Mile, Suburban, Whitney, and Woodward.

Excessivepleasure's female line traces back to one of California's finest families, nurtured by the late Lou Rowan, through such mares as Pleased Look, Crackapeen, and Mrs. Rabbit. Mizzle won the 1971 Santa Ana Handicap, Coursing won the 1965 Del Mar Futurity, and Spinney, who started 47 times at ages 3 and 4, passed the 1957 San Fernando but won the subsequent Santa Anita Maturity (now Strub Stakes) for the 4-year-old sub-division.

Although his accomplishments are admirable, Excessivepleasure has yet to be mentioned with the leaders of his generation. He was stomped by the big boys in the Haskell Invitational, but he did bounce right back to defeat Pennsylvania Derby winner Grand Hombre and Canadian superstar Wando in the Indiana Derby, in the process becoming a household name in the town of Anderson, home of Hoosier Park.

The Leathermans own a San Fernando Valley-based family business called Professional Staffing, which specializes in nursing personnel. In the past year, horses such as Excessivepleasure and Japan Cup Dirt winner Fleetstreet Dancer have put them on the map. Ty Leatherman was asked what their trophy case looked like before the more recent onslaught.

"What trophy case?" he said with a laugh.

Whether or not Excessivepleasure can add the San Fernando to the collection, he will probably be back on the road for his next race, perhaps even to Dubai for the million-dollar mile event on the World Cup card. In the meantime, Leatherman is concerned his horse might not get the right signals for Saturday's race, which will be contested merely a short van ride away from his Hollywood Park digs.

"I don't know," the owner said. "Maybe we ought to put him on a plane Friday and fly him around for awhile."