03/31/2010 11:00PM

Proving a real handful in the Machowsky barn


ARCADIA, Calif. - He has got more moves than Bekins. His trainer calls him John Stockton. He has dropped one of the toughest hands on the backstretch and keeps heads spinning around the barn, trying to figure out what he'll do next. His name means "scarface" in Spanish, and if he runs well on Saturday in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, they had better get ready in Louisville. Caracortado could be coming to town.

Fear not, though. This is not some malevolent black stallion with a taste for red meat. Caracortado is a nifty chestnut gelding, just tall enough to make the scary rides at Disneyland, with a beefcake forearm and a flawless stride that would fit well on a bigger animal. Not long ago his trainer, Mike Machowsky, led Caracortado to the Matt Chew shed row next door and availed himself of the equine scale, if only to satisfy the curiosity cultivated by headlines like "Little Cal-bred a Contender."

"He's not that little," said Machowsky, who also bred Caracortado and owns him in partnership with Don Blahut. "I never weigh my horses. Matt guessed he'd be around 1,025. He was 1,060. Smarty Jones wasn't as big as this horse."

Caracortado will be trying to follow in the Santa Anita Derby footsteps of such homegrown Californians as Brother Derek, Free House, Cavonnier, Flying Paster, and Snow Chief. Their patron saint is Swaps, although Hill Rise and Candy Spots weren't far behind.

Machowsky was summoning the right role model, though. Through late 2003 and early 2004, Pennsylvania's Smarty Jones trolled along far from the spotlight, winning quietly but insistently, before emerging with his Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness heroics.

Caracortado was on the same rhythm until the recent San Felipe, when a slow pace on the Santa Anita synthetics rendered him to third, beaten two lengths. At that point, however, everything was gravy. Ever since he arrived at the track with blue sutures closing a three-inch farm mishap just below the white star between his eyes, Caracortado has exceeded all expectations.

"When he came in, he was tough to be around," Machowsky said, leading a visitor to the far end of his barn. "Anything would startle him and set him off. Freak him out. That's why I put him down here. The tack rooms are right above him, and he needed that constant commotion to settle down and relax."

In the parlance of horsemanship, this form of desensitizing is called "sacking out." The worst thing you can do to a horse is protect him from the more benign sights and sounds of the real world in which he must function.

"You can't hothouse them," Machowsky said. "And you know what he'll face on Derby Day if he gets there."

About then the animal in question turned from a tuft of alfalfa in the corner of his stall and shifted to the webbing. The caramel muzzle was soft and his eyes were half-closed, hardly the picture of an unpredictable dervish.

"He dropped me twice and tried to a whole lot more," said Amy Mullins, who gets on Caracortado every day. "He's got this sideways thing he tries."

Then there was the bucket.

"It was at Del Mar," Machowsky said. "He put his head all the way in a water bucket, then raised up with the bucket caught on his head. Water splashing everywhere, and my wife was on a pony behind him with our daughter. He started backing up, but he had the sense to stop before anything else happened."

Caracortado won't turn a full 3 years old until a week after the Kentucky Derby is run. So far, he hasn't needed this as an excuse. He won the first five starts of his life, commencing with a half-mile maiden claimer at Fairplex Park last September and including the Robert B. Lewis Memorial in February. Each step along the way was greeted with a certain amount of "this can't last," and it didn't. Still, Caracortado was finishing well enough under veteran Paul Atkinson at the end of the San Felipe to encourage Machowsky.

"I blame the trainer," Machowsky said. "I probably told Paul too much, and Paul's ridden him perfect. I thought there was going to be a lot of speed in there, and that he might want to be back a little bit. It must have been the owner in me come out.

"I should have known better," he added with a laugh. "I used to ride Eddie Delahoussaye, and when I'd try to give him instructions I swear he was thinking, 'What an idiot.' Then he'd go out and do the exact opposite. And every time I told him nothing, the horse would run huge."

Saturday's field for the Santa Anita Derby brings together most of the principals from the San Felipe and the Sham Stakes, two key races of the winter, in addition to Lookin At Lucky, the country's top 3-year-old until proven otherwise. With 10 runners it will be only half the size of that other Derby down the line, but it should give Caracortado and the others a legitimate rehearsal for Kentucky, in terms of both pace and traffic. Machowsky was asked if there would be any advice for his jock this time around.

"No," he replied. "Not from either the trainer or the owner."

* A mischievous colleague asked me how many times I thought the first name of Karl Watson, part-owner of Santa Anita Derby favorite Lookin At Lucky, would be spelled using a "C" during the run-up to the Kentucky Derby. I was not qualified to answer, because in Saturday's column I called him "Mark" Watson, which is a whole new way to screw up Karl. Apologies, to both Karl and Mark.