12/27/2002 12:00AM

Shoeless Joe, the Malibu man

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ARCADIA, Calif. - I know what you're thinking. You're wondering, "How does she do it?" Well, don't ask me. I'm only married to the woman, and the things these riders do on horseback will be forever mystifying, no matter how many times they patiently try to explain their craft.

Anyway, Julie Krone's victory aboard Debonair Joe in the opening-day Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita Park was no more or less amazing than what Hall of Famers do on a regular basis.

Besides, if you ask Krone who gets the credit she will point to Debonair Joe's trainer, Juan Pablo Silva. Ask Silva the same thing and he points back to Krone. Obviously, there is no sense in pursuing that line of questioning.

The common denominator is Debonair Joe, who was claimed for $12,500 from Craig Lewis last September and from now on will be found on the same list of Malibu winners as Round Table, Native Diver, Buckpasser, Damascus, Ancient Title, Spectacular Bid, Precisionist, and Ferdinand. Is this a strange game or what?

"As a young horse he had a lot of try," Lewis said the morning after the race. "More try than ability. But I'm still kind of stunned. I've had everybody in the game making their comments.

"I even know some figure guys who tell me this is the worst Malibu ever run," Lewis added. "And just so you know this - it doesn't make me feel any better."

Lewis has company in his misery. Racing lore is replete with claimers who turned the corner for a new stable and left a trail of second guessing. Their patron saint is Stymie, a $1,500 claim who went on to win more than $900,000 in the 1940's.

Debonair Joe hardly fits the role of a budding star, even though pretty is as pretty does. He would be tough to pick out of a lineup. He is a narrow, nondescript bay, these days sporting a sumptuous winter coat, whose only distinguishing mark is a delicate anklet of white worn above his left hind foot. He is also the one with carrot breath, and he delights in dragging his groom, Rafael Vega, on playful tours of the shed row.

Silva was the one with the lipstick on his cheek and the look of a deer caught squarely in the headlights as he navigated the aftermath of his first major stakes victory. Half an hour after the Malibu was official, he finally was able to enjoy a flute of champagne in the Santa Anita Directors' Room alongside Lynne Ristad of Pismo Beach, who claimed Debonair Joe, hoping someday he could be worth as much as $40,000 in the hands of her 25-year-old trainer. First prize in the Malibu was $120,000.

Silva turns 26 in February, which still makes him among the youngest trainers to win a big one at a major league West Coast track.

Ben Cecil was 28 when he won the Del Mar Handicap with Dernier Empereur in 1996. Craig Dollase was 27 when Reality Road won the 1998 San Carlos at Santa Anita, while Nick Canani was 24 in 1998 when he won the Del Mar Oaks with Sicy d'Alsace. It is Ron Ellis who still holds the title, though. He was just 20 when he sent out To B. or Not to win the opening-day Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita on Dec. 26, 1980, and there were more than 66,000 witnesses to back him up.

In many ways, Silva's work with Debonair Joe is reminiscent of the way Ellis handled To B. or Not, who went on to become one of the top California sprinters of the 1980's. Both young trainers basically camped outside the stall of their big horse and began to apply what they learned from experienced mentors - for Ellis it was Larry Sterling, for Silva it has been his father, Jose Silva, as well as Richard Mandella. It should be noted that Gary Mandella, Richard's son, trains Malibu runner-up Total Limit.

"I started out ponying horses for Richard Mandella," Silva said. "I spent as much time as I could around the barn, trying to learn. After awhile he let me do the feet work in the stalls. I would watch everything he did."

And he remembered. When Silva noticed that Debonair Joe would emerge from a routine gallop body sore, he recalled that Mandella would sometimes let a horse go without shoes in such circumstances, allowing the natural spread of the foot to distribute the concussion. Since that epiphany, Joe has gone shoeless, at least for training purposes.

"He's really quiet," Silva added. "He's not the kind of horse who needs to be working in 59, 46, 1:10, or 1:11. I think the fresher you keep him, the better he stays. He has a big heart, and a very good mind."

And now a reputation to match.