04/18/2003 12:00AM

San Juan's luster must be restored


ARCADIA, Calif. - If Chris McCarron, in his new role as general manager, is going to help usher in the renaissance of Santa Anita Park, he will need to get cracking. The meet ends Sunday. The challenge has already begun.

No doubt McCarron has been getting a lot of advice. The in-box is stacked high. A general manager, if he does his job, must answer for everything from parking to programs to the quality of the pastrami at the sandwich bar, and anything in between.

As an interested bystander, I have my own list. But I would not presume to pile on McCarron just yet. Let him get his sea legs first. Let him figure out what can be done and how fast. I would hope, however, that he could find the time at some point to mount a rescue operation of considerable importance to the well-being of the game.

Please, Mr. McCarron, can you save the San Juan Capistrano?

For nearly 50 years, the San Juan Capistrano Handicap has been considered the most significant grass race of the Santa Anita meet. Through the 1960's and well into the 1970's, it ranked alongside races such as the United Nations Handicap and the Washington, D.C. International as America's most prestigious turf events.

The list of winners is enough to make a racing fan swoon. John Henry, Exceller, Cougar, Tiller, Amerigo, and Olden Times are good for a start. Elliott Burch smiled for a week after he won the San Juan with One on the Aisle. Of all the great grass racing presented at Santa Anita Park since the course was opened in 1955, the two greatest races were San Juans: John Longden's last ride aboard George Royal in 1966, and the four-horse blanket finish of the 1970 running that ended in a dead heat between Fiddle Isle and Quicken Tree, with Fort Marcy beaten only a nose.

McCarron has been involved in his share. He won his first of four San Juans in 1985 aboard Prince True and his last in 2001 with Bienamado, who set an untouchable course record. He should have won a fifth, but he was injured a couple hours before he was supposed to ride Marlin in 1997 (Eddie Delahoussaye picked up the win). And he might have won a sixth in 1993 with Bien Bien were it not for a course-record performance by subsequent Horse of the Year Kotashaan. They were only a head apart.

There was a time when the winners of the San Juan were well known beyond their ability to stay 1 3/4 miles on the grass, and many were adept on dirt. Mr. Consistency won the Santa Anita Handicap. Lemhi Gold won the Marlboro Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Erins Isle won the Californian at 1 1/16 miles, while Bobby Brocato won the six-furlong Sanford Stakes at 2 and the seven-furlong Carter Handicap at 4 before winning his 14-furlong San Juan. These were all-around racehorses, not role players.

But lately, something has gone wrong. Of the five most recent winners of the San Juan, four were runners of no particular note going into the race and none of them accomplished much in the wake of their victories. The only exception was 2001 winner Bienamado, a son of Bien Bien.

It is hard to blame the racing program. Santa Anita management has maintained the San Juan purse at $400,000 and continued to offer plenty of opportunities to prepare for the ultimate test. Only two of the traditional stakes at the meet - the Santa Anita Handicap and the Santa Anita Derby - carry more in purse money.

Management's reward has been an ever-increasing frustration with the turn-out for its premiere grass event. When the San Juan is run again on Sunday, the nine runners will be a modest bunch, led by a 117-pound topweight, Champion Lodge.

The field for the 2003 San Juan, however, is also noteworthy for what it does not include. Amazingly enough, it lacks a runner from the stables of Bobby Frankel, Neil Drysdale, Ron McAnally, Richard Mandella, or D. Wayne Lukas. These are California-based Hall of Famers, supposedly members of the Hall of Fame because they win races like the San Juan Capistrano.

This is an alarming trend. It used to be a matter of pride for an owner and a trainer to win the San Juan Capistrano, or at least have a horse ready to face the challenge. Carrying speed over a distance of ground - something a little more stern than nine or 10 furlongs - was supposed to be the point of the exercise.

"We've certainly drifted away from stamina races," said McCarron on Friday as he prepared for the weekend finale. "Prestigious marathons, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup, have been shortened to accommodate other new fixtures, like the Breeders' Cup.

"I'm not exactly sure how to go about it, but the San Juan certainly is worth saving," McCarron added. "Long races on the grass, like the San Juan, have always been my favorites. They are more challenging strategically for horse and rider."

And endlessly entertaining for horseplayers and fans.