10/31/2002 1:00AM

A 'problem' horse for his owners

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Stoney made racing complicated for owners Stephen and Cyndi Weeks this year.

It used to be that when the Weekses claimed a horse, the only issue was whether to raise it or drop it in claiming price in its next start. Stoney has changed all that. There have been no talk of claiming races for Stoney since he was taken for $20,000 at Hollywood Park on May 31. But deciding which allowance races and stakes to run Stoney in has left the Weekses and trainer Ruben Cardenas with a puzzle.

"We had to make some hard decisions," Stephen Weeks said. "You just never know. I think picking races for him is interesting. In my normal claiming horses it's easy: Is it a $16,000 or a $20,000? With this, it's different."

Other owners can only wish they were as lucky.

Saturday, the 4-year-old Stoney will attempt to win his fifth consecutive race in the $50,000 California Cup Starter Handicap over six furlongs for horses that have started for $32,000 or less in 2002. There was consideration for starting Stoney in the $150,000 California Cup Sprint, one of the day's top races, but in the end Stephen Weeks and Cardenas chose the lesser race.

"It's not about money," Stephen Weeks insisted. "He's going to get an easy field, we assume. I think it's a marvelous thing. It highlights that he was a claimer."

The emphasis is on the past tense. Stoney has earned $175,060 since he was claimed. The highlight has been a come-from-behind victory in the $100,000 California Sprint Championship Handicap at Bay Meadows on Oct. 5.

In his first three races for the Weekses and Cardenas, Stoney had raced on or near the lead, but at Bay Meadows he overcame a bump at the start to win by 1 1/2 lengths over El Dorado Shooter, who is in Saturday's $150,000 Sprint.

"Every race is different," Stephen Weeks said. "Especially that race at San Francisco, what was that all about? He was bumped and bumped hard by another horse. I was getting ready halfway through to stand up and walk away and then he showed that stretch run. This horse is jockey proof."

Weeks and Cardenas credit the remarkable turnaround to Stoney being gelded in June.

"I didn't do anything else," Cardenas said. "Sometimes you can improve a horse when you geld him."

For nearly a year before the claim, Cardenas had been aware of Stoney. He recalled that Stoney finished a game second in the Real Good Deal Stakes for California-breds at Del Mar in 2001, before being laid off until early May.

At the time, Stoney was racing for his breeder, Bud Johnston, who raced him with a partner.

"I thought he had some potential to be a nice horse," Cardenas said.

In May, Stephen Weeks suggested the claim and Cardenas went along with it, admitting up front that he was concerned about the drop in value from $25,000 in early May to $20,000 on May 31.

To play it safe, Cardenas put in two claims - one with him as an owner and another with the Weekses as owners. In a seven-way shake, Cardenas won the claim under his name, and later transferred ownership to the Weekses.

"Ruben and I were both having a so-so Hollywood meeting," Stephen Weeks recalled. "I said, 'Let's buy him.' He just changed all of our luck. We had four wins at Del Mar. He's been the type of horse that from the first day he looked like a stakes horse. Once he was gelded, he was turned around."

Stoney reappeared in a first-condition allowance race for California-breds over seven furlongs on July 14 and won by two lengths. In a first-condition allowance against open company (a provision granted to California-breds) at Del Mar on Aug. 10, Stoney won by 5 1/2 lengths over 6 1/2 furlongs. That was followed at Del Mar on Sept. 2 by a four-length win in an optional claimer over six furlongs.

The Bay Meadows stakes win left Cardenas stunned.

"When he got that far back, I thought no way he will win there," Cardenas said. "Then when he got hit - that was the first time I saw the horse get hit - he just took off. Russell Baze said it was like he had another gear."

Throughout the summer and fall, Stoney has been a project for Cardenas and his staff. There is the lingering concern about a suspensory and the colt's erratic behavior. He sometimes acts very masculine, as if he does not realize he has been gelded, Cardenas said.

"I jogged him for three weeks and I gelded him after we claimed him, so I gave him a little breather," Cardenas said.

"To work inside the barn, he's really nice. He can get a little studdy when he walks around the barn. To be around him, he's really like a pony. He's a very professional horse. He's not big, but well put together.

"I do a lot of work on his legs and try to keep him cool. I try to train him like a normal horse. He's got an old suspensory but it's never really been bugging him. I haven't had any problems. When he's training good and doesn't show any signs, you can go on. The horse will tell you if he has problems.

"Every time he's been running with me, he's been winning so easy. I still can't believe myself."

Following the Bay Meadows race, a $90,000 supplement to the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Arlington Park was considered, but ultimately his connections passed. "That's a lot of money," Weeks said.

Cardenas remains bullish on Stoney and wouldn't mind taking a crack at that race next year. "If he keeps winning like he's been winning, I'm not afraid to race with anybody," he said.

For now, Stephen Weeks would be content with a victory on the California Cup program. Last year, he started Love That Lion in the Starter Handicap for sprinters, but that horse finished only fourth.

"Knock on wood, we've been very lucky with this," said Weeks, who owns a mortgage banking business. "We've had a wonderful run this year. If I'm lucky, then Ruben is talented. He has the ability to improve a horse and to care about the horse.

"We're relatively new to the business. We've been in for three years. To maybe win a Cal Cup race is a big deal.