04/08/2004 12:00AM

Some just take longer to get it

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ARCADIA, Calif. - California racing now finds itself in the melancholy throes of severe empty nest syndrome. All the brave young colts and fillies have fled town, like kids off to college, or, more to the point, soldiers off to war, bound for glory in the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks.

So farewell Lion Heart, Silent Sighs, Halfbridled, Castledale, Preachinatthebar, Wimbledon, Minister Eric, Action This Day, A.P. Adventure - deep breath - House of Fortune, Borrego, Harvard Avenue, Master David, Rock Hard Ten, Imperialism, and Quintons Gold Rush. We hardly knew ye.

Odds are good that both the Derby and the Oaks winners can be found somewhere in that bunch. The racing among 3-year-olds in Southern California this year has been both deep and entertaining, leaving a number of ambitious owners and trainers encouraged to think they have a shot at the Kentucky prizes.

Come summer, however, the waiter will bring the bill, and the price will be high. There will be exactly one Derby winner and one Oaks winner, while - if history tells us anything - the rest of the best and brightest of the 3-year-old generation will be ground up by history, rendered useless and forgotten. Save that list, though. Bring it out again in six months and prove this observer wrong. We can only hope.

In the meantime, there is always a chance that a jewel was left behind, some late-blooming treasure whose people decided that life goes on past a 3-year-old spring. Their patron saints are horses like Kelso, Ack Ack, Wajima, Precisionist, and Lady's Secret, extraordinary talents who were classic season no-shows because of development, minor injury, or a conservative tilt to the stable.

California has had its recent share of late bloomers. The most notable among them was Tiznow, who watched the 2000 Triple Crown from afar, then did his generation proud that fall by winning the Breeders' Cup Classic. Pleasantly Perfect is in that mold, along with mares like Azeri, Adoration, Affluent, and Manistique. They needed time, owners and trainers listened, and the game became a better place when they emerged as mature athletes.

The local consolation prizes for the West Coast 3-year-olds begin this weekend, with the $100,000 La Puente Stakes for the boys on Saturday and the $100,000 Providencia Stakes on Sunday for the fillies. Both are contested at one mile on the grass, which could open new horizons and pinpoint possible summertime stars.

Capitano was nominated for the La Puente, but he will be reserved one week to run in the California Derby on April 17 at Bay Meadows. With its purse of $100,000 and its ungraded status, the race offers perfect cover for a colt like Capitano, who only needed a little bit of an excuse this winter to be swept up in the Kentucky Derby wave.

A flashy chestnut son of Belong to Me, Capitano was a distant second to Ruler's Court in the Norfolk Stakes and split the field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. In three races this year, Capitano's best effort was his most recent, when he finished in a dead heat for second in the March 13 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, beaten a half-length by Kilgowan.

Ray Bell, who trains Capitano for Mr. and Mrs. Vicken Meguerditchian, could have tossed caution to the wind and run Capitano in the Santa Anita Derby, then plowed on to the Kentucky Derby along with the rest of the also-rans. Somehow, he resisted the temptation.

"I just didn't want to do that," Bell said. "There's too many nice races throughout the year to look forward to, without blowing it all in one shot. The Kentucky Derby is the greatest race in the world to win, but it's probably the most destructive, both mentally and physically, that you can put a horse through.

"Anyway, I've been on the Derby trail before," Bell added. "It's like Charlie Whittingham said - unless you're 5-2, you shouldn't be going."

In fairness, Whittingham once won the Derby at 17-1 with Ferdinand. And Bell's first experience with the Kentucky Derby would have been enough to scar anyone for life. As assistant to his father, Tom Bell, Ray had to suffer through the sight of Rumbo, under Laffit Pincay, running one of the fastest final quarters in Derby history in 1980, only to fall a length shy of catching Genuine Risk.

"I've put that behind me, to a certain extent," Bell said. "Although I do keep the chart of that Derby in my desk drawer, just to show everybody what happened. I was at a gathering not too long ago when Rumbo's Derby was brought up. Pincay said he should have won that race. I'm not sure I needed to hear that."

Still, it's better to never say never, and Bell is not anxious to paint himself into a corner with Capitano. In a year without a clear 3-year-old leader, anything remains possible.

"If I thought Capitano was a true mile-and-a-quarter horse, I might have considered the Derby," Bell said. "And if he runs well in the California Derby, I suppose we'd take a look at the Preakness. Of course, if he wins by five on the bridle, you can call me back and wonder what I'm going to do."