12/08/2004 12:00AM

SoCal's moments to remember

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It may come as a harsh surprise to California racing fans that - at least in the eyes of a select panel of executives and staff back at the league office - there was not a single, solitary occurrence during California's racing season worthy of inclusion on a list of 10 candidates for the 2004 "NTRA Moment of the Year."

The poll has become an annual affair, asking fans to embrace one magical piece of recent history that figures to live on long after the calendar has gone gray. Last year, Funny Cide's Kentucky Derby victory carried the day. And who, besides breeders, could argue with that?

For the 2004 ballot, Smarty Jones appears no less than three times, along with various memories supplied by Funny Cide, Kicken Kris, Azeri, and Kitten's Joy. Fans also will be able to choose from among three Breeders' Cup moments at Lone Star Park, revolving around the performances of Ghostzapper, Singletary, and Sweet Catomine.

Besides Lone Star, the nominees made their grand gestures at Arlington Park, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Oaklawn Park, Belmont Park, Belmont Park, and Belmont Park. There could be a pattern, not readily apparent, but it is crystal clear that California is seen to be suffering from an abject lack of drama.

Hard to believe, too, especially after all those races and all those horses ridden by all those jockeys for all those owners and trainers. Total attendance at Santa Anita was 747,640. At Hollywood's summer meet, 542,597 turned out. Then there were the 733,237 sun-drenched tourists who wandered into Del Mar, followed by another 241,016 during the Oak Tree meet.

But, like an Al Gore victory party, maybe it was all just a dream.

Did the frail but talented Southern Image really defeat the stubborn filly, Island Fashion, in a Santa Anita Handicap that delivered on its promise?

Wasn't that Jose Valdivia, squinting and splattered after shedding his last set of goggles, getting Castledale up to edge Rock Hard Ten in a thriller of a Santa Anita Derby?

Pleasantly Perfect was never the kind of pro to spike the ball in the end zone, but his Pacific Classic was vibrant, and he did nothing to smudge his rep as the top-ranked dirt horse in the world.

Then there was Julio Canani, enjoying not just a moment, but an entire summer by the sea by winning Del Mar's Derby, Debutante, Oaks, and Eddie Read.

And while we're at it, what was wrong with that soul-searching showdown between Declan's Moon and Roman Ruler in a Del Mar Futurity that won't soon be forgotten?

On second thought, California might have committed the ultimate public relations sin. Perhaps the Golden State supplied the wrong kind of memorable moments during 2004, fraught with controversy, pain, politics, and disappointment. Imagine that. California - home of the agonizingly real.

Californians, therefore, should just go ahead and choose from their own list of milestone moments for 2004. It makes for good wallowing, top to bottom. The nominees are:

- Patrick Valenzuela, suspended, paroled, suspended again, and now appealing what amounts to a lifetime ban. If anyone asks for the most head-shaking tale of California in 2004, just hum a tune from "Hair."

- With Valenzuela out, Corey Nakatani stepped up to lead the standings at Del Mar and Oak Tree. He did it, sadly, while laboring under the cloud of a pending 30-day suspension for what both the stewards and an administrative law judge saw as a flagrantly dangerous move, causing another horse and rider to fall. There are still appeals pending. In California, there are always appeals pending.

- The sudden, accidental death of 10-year-old Free House in July cast a pall over the California scene and cut short what promised to be a successful stallion career. He was a homebred California hero, brimming with personality, and a racehorse with few peers.

- If there was one thing Californians could count on - besides Free House - it was Alex Solis, the most durable jockey in the West. When Solis went down opening week at Del Mar, fracturing a vertabrae between his shoulder blades, it felt like an old growth Sequoia crashing to the floor of a redwood forest. Solis was comfortably leading the national standings at the time of the injury, so count on him to pick up where he left off when he returns early next year.

- In 2004, California became the land of the positives, as in, everyone was absolutely positive that everyone else was cheating. Commissioners and track executives have taken steps to ease the public's concern - a positive trend - but the question lingers: How do you responsibly regulate a game in which the losers are twice as sore as the

horses?

- Finally, a telltale moment from a year full of political intrigue. Hot on the scent of slot machine salvation, California's racing interests allowed themselves to be coupled in the betting with a convoluted ballot proposition that was designed to put the squeeze on Indian casinos. After encouraging words from the governor - and yes, you heard right, it IS Arnold Schwarzenegger - he switched horses and campaigned hard for the other side. As a result, racing was left high, dry, and millions of dollars out of pocket.

The good news? At least 2005 is not an election year.