02/14/2007 12:00AM

Racing to Rio for the big dance

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Since all work and no play can make even light-hearted Robert Frankel a dull and grouchy boy, the Hall of Fame trainer is blowing the California scene this weekend to immerse himself in one of the Western Hemisphere's most gloriously decadent celebrations.

Mr. Frankel, meet King Momo.

That's right. From Friday night through Fat Tuesday, when the sun goes down and the blood begins to boil, Brooklyn Bobby will turn into Roberto de la Samba as one of the hundreds of thousands of visitors descending upon Rio de Janeiro for its fabled Carnival.

Frankel has been there before, two years ago in fact, as a guest of Goncalo Torrealba, the noted Brazilian Thoroughbred owner and breeder. Frankel won a 2005 Eclipse Award as champion male turf horse for Torrealba's Leroidesanimeaux. More recently, Torrealba's homebred Brazilian horse Molengao won the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita for trainer Paolo Lobo.

"He's almost forcing me to go," Frankel said of Torrealba. "Plane tickets, hotel, everything. During the day you go to the beach, or whatever. Then at nine o'clock it starts, and it doesn't end until 8:30 the next morning, with the samba music going all night long."

The timing is awkward for Frankel, at least on Saturday, when Juddmonte Farms' Malibu Stakes winner Latent Heat is scheduled to run in the Grade 1 San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita. The six-hour difference between Rio de Janeiro and Los Angeles means that Bobby will need to ask Carnival revelers to keep it down for about 81 seconds or so while he listens to the race on his cell phone, after which he can return his undivided attention to that evening's Samba Parade, the highlight of Carnival.

Thousands of dancers sporting flamboyant costumes fill the Sambodromo to strut their stuff. There are beautiful women, men dressed as beautiful women, men dressed as beautiful women wearing animal costumes - you get the idea - along with outlandish floats and the world's most wonderful music. Of course, for a connoisseur like Frankel, it's the pure competition that he appreciates most. Never mind that many of the dancers wear little more than paint, feathers, and high heels.

"They're grouped in 'schools,' " Frankel explained. "It's like a contest, all choreographed. The first night you've got like the Group 3 schools, then the next nights come the Group 1's. They go on for miles, and it's tiring, too. There's stragglers. They've got to finish the parade in a certain amount of time or they get penalized. We sit right across from the judges, so we get to see the best performances."

The mind boggles. Among Frankel's traveling companions will be fellow trainer Rick Dutrow (on suspension) and former jock's agent Ronnie Ebanks (on loan from the Poker Tour). The following exchange has yet to take place, but don't bet it won't:

Frankel: Wait'll you see this Viraduoro school. You'll go nuts. They're a lock to win it all.

Dutrow: Can I get down?

Ebanks: Rick, my man, you get down now or you get down never. You catch the way these people dance? Lemme out there!

Meanwhile, back among the working folk, Latent Heat figures to add the San Carlos to his growing reputation as Frankel's next good thing. Throw out his bad day at Keeneland last fall in the Perryville Stakes, from which he emerged with a virus, and the record shows eight other starts of clockwork consistency, with five wins, two seconds, and a third in the 2006 Santa Catalina Stakes to Brother Derek.

A son of Maria's Mon, Latent Heat stalked a 45-second half in the Dec. 26 Malibu and then left the field in the stretch, winning by an easy two lengths for his first stakes victory.

"I backed off a few weeks after the Malibu," Frankel said before boarding a Rio-bound plane. "Then I decided there was too much time between now and the Carter in New York to just do nothing with him."

Even though the colt was fancied as a possible classic contender a year ago, Frankel thinks the older version of Latent Heat could find his niche as a sprinter-plus, perhaps even in the mold of Aldebaran. In 2003, Frankel campaigned Aldebaran to victories in the San Carlos, Tom Fool, Forego, and Churchill Downs Handicap - all at seven furlongs - in addition to the Metropolitan Mile. Eclipse Award voters overlooked Aldebaran's sixth-place finish in the 2003 Breeders' Cup Sprint at six furlongs and made him their champion anyway.

Before going on to the Carter at Aqueduct and the Met Mile at Belmont, Latent Heat first must deal with a San Carlos field that will include Siren Lure, winner of the Triple Bend and Pat O'Brien at the distance, and possibly Proud Tower Too, winner of the 2006 Golden Shaheen and runner-up more recently to Smokey Stover in the Sunshine Millions Sprint. If he runs his race, though, Latent Heat will be tough to beat, and rest assured that his trainer will celebrate long into the night. With a couple of million people in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, he won't be alone.