01/05/2009 1:00AM

Quality over quantity in this barn


ARCADIA, Calif. - "That's it," said Nicholas Bachalard, almost apologetically, as he arrived at the end of the seven-horse Santa Anita shed row he runs for his boss, Christophe Clement. "Not too many."

Maybe not, but it is safe to say that stall-for-stall, no California stable this side of Bobby Frankel's packed more punch through a good portion of the 2008 season. As 2009 dawned, four of those seven stalls were occupied by stakes winners Gio Ponti, In Summation, Society Hostess, and Vacare, while a fifth was home to the recent maiden race winner Haka, a 2-year-old daughter of Dynaformer who seems destined for bigger things.

Vacare, who concluded her career with a victory in the Dahlia Handicap at Hollywood Park on Dec. 21, will be on her way to England soon to begin life as a broodmare. Her stall will be tough to fill. In the meantime, Virginia Derby winner Gio Ponti won the Sir Beaufort Stakes on opening day of the Santa Anita meet, taking to the synthetic surface like a wolf to red meat, and the old campaigner In Summation, freshly turned 6, won his second straight El Conejo Handicap on New Year's Day.

"It was nice to see him win again," Bachalard said as he displayed In Summation to a visitor. "He was a bit unlucky last year, and he was running against some very good horses."

That last part won't change soon. In Summation runs next against Malibu Stakes winner Black Jack Attack in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint at Santa Anita on Jan. 24. Gio Ponti, on the other hand, has options galore. He could rejoin the main Clement string in Florida for a grass race at Gulfstream Park, playing to his proven strength, or he could stay at Santa Anita for a race like the $250,000 Strub Stakes on the main track, Feb. 7.

Good horses are hardly strangers around a Clement barn. Although he has yet to knock off a Breeders' Cup race or a Triple Crown event, Clement has handled such major stakes winners as Dynever, Forbidden Apple, England's Legend, Flag Down, Honor Glide, Relaxed Gesture, Royal Highness, and Mauralakana.

Bachalard has been along for most of the ride, and at 39 he must deal with expectations that by now he should be making a name for himself as a head trainer. The idea has crossed his mind, of course, but the realities of such a drastic sea change are daunting

"A lot of people ask me, 'Why don't you go out on your own?' " Bachalard said. "It's hard to leave such good horses, you know. You get spoiled. Unless you can get lucky right away, and win races right away, you can be easily forgotten."

The Bachalards of Laval, France (located just west of Le Mans), are not known for sending their offspring into the Thoroughbred world. Bachalard's father was in plastics and his mother taught English, of all things. Nicholas, who speaks fluent American and racetrack Spanish, gravitated to horse farms and ended up working for such A-list outfits as Coolmore, Gainesway, and the Aga Khan.

"A friend went to work for Christophe not long after he started in New York," Bachalard said. "I walked hots for him and did stalls, then started fiddling around with other things. When an assistant left, I asked for the job, and here we are. It's been 15 years."

The Clement logo - an interlocking gold CC on blue - has been a welcome sight on a California racing scene that has become increasingly insulated from outside influences. Todd Pletcher has established a West Coast beachhead and Graham Motion has made a solid commitment, but they have yet to represent a trend. Indeed, it was cause for celebration this year when Canadian stalwarts Mark Casse and Reade Baker set up a local shops.

And yet, Californians hardly wake up every day thinking of themselves as isolated. How could they, with the Chargers in San Diego and Las Vegas right next door? By Eastern standards, though, the state may as well be part of the Hawaiian Islands. All the best available horses are in the same big pot, trying to win a finite number of events. If a horse is not viable in Southern California, at any level, the only alternatives are Turf Paradise, Golden Gate, or wait for the fairs. In the East, a horse who can't cut it in New York has Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and New Jersey just a van ride away.

As Clement's man on the coast, Bachalard felt obligated to explore at least a little bit of the vast region when the rare opportunities arose. He did San Francisco, the Napa Valley, and Yosemite (in winter - brave man), and he has become a de facto source on the eternal question of "Saratoga or Del Mar."

"It's unfair to compare them," he said, playing the diplomat. "Although you will not see many shorts being worn in the Saratoga paddock."

If the East has convenience and tradition, Bachalard gave the West points for its hay and straw.

"And there are those beautiful mountains in front of you every day," Bachalard noted, gesturing toward the rugged San Gabriels.

"The biggest problem coming here is the cost," he added. "Just shipping a horse here is very expensive, so you'd better bring horses who can do well. And don't let anyone ever tell you it's easy to win a race in California."

They just make it look that way.