12/23/2004 12:00AM

As sprinter, Stone Rain has an edge


ARCADIA, Calif. - At first glance, Stone Rain may seem out of place in the field for Sunday's Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita. Stone Rain lost for a $25,000 claiming price in his first two starts and had to be dropped in for $20,000 in order to get his first win. In fact, two of his four victories came against claimers.

Contrast Stone Rain's record to some of his Malibu opponents' such as graded stakes winners Rock Hard Ten and Love of Money - and it's easy to conclude that trainer John Sadler and owners Ron and Melodie McAtee are taking a shot in the dark. But Stone Rain's victory in a quickly run optional claiming race last month at Hollywood shows he is worthy of a place in the Malibu, run over seven furlongs for 3-year-olds.

The Malibu will be the first time the McAtees, of Poway, Calif., have had a starter in a Grade 1 stakes, and they have never won a stakes. The Malibu may be the ideal spot to try.

is truly a sprinter, while several starters in the Malibu seem better suited to races around two turns.

"That's what we're hoping," Ron McAtee said. "They're all prepping for something else."

Just getting this far with Stone Rain seemed improbable last December.

The McAtees claimed Stone Rain for $40,000 last Dec. 31, the day he won a six-furlong race by 11 lengths. A week later, Sadler told them the horse had a bone chip in a knee.

The three of them decided that Stone Rain should undergo surgery to have the bone chip removed, a decision that would require a lengthy layoff. The joy of the Dec. 31 win quickly wore off.

"It takes a bit out of air out of your belt," Ron McAtee said.

At the time, Sadler sensed that Stone Rain could develop into a better horse than a $40,000 claimer.

"Are you going to shoot for something better or try to manage it out?" he said of the decision to operate on the bone chip. "He ran a greatly improved race the day we claimed him. I could have run him and lost him on the raise. I said, 'Let's try to do what's best for the horse or give him a break.' "

Stone Rain did not return to racing until Del Mar, where he finished a game second in an optional claimer over 6 1/2 furlongs on Aug. 21. He fought for the lead to early stretch before fading to finish 4 1/2 lengths behind Attack Alert.

Stone Rain returned in the Foothill Stakes at Fairplex Park in Ponoma on Sept. 10, but could not handle the sharp turns at that track and finished sixth.

"The only real blip was we learned he's not a Pomona horse," Sadler said. "He's just didn't corner. Sometimes, you have that happen. They go in 21 and change and they don't corner well. I get one of those a year. Pomona can do that."

Stone Rain's third start of 2004 came in an optional claimer over 6 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on Nov. 17. He took the lead from the start, set quick fractions, and held off a late run from Harvard Avenue to win by a neck, finishing in 1:15.03 and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 99.

Shortly after the race, the Malibu entered the discussion.

"I've been in the business since 1981," McAtee said. "We've run in a couple of stakes, but nothing like this. He's doing very well and he's run some darn fast times. I think we've got a good chance of having a real nice horse. We're pumped up."

Ron McAtee, 63, and his wife operate a fleet of catering trucks in San Diego County and are fixtures at Del Mar each summer. Ron McAtee said he has missed eight days at Del Mar in 27 years: "That was because I was sick," he said.

The couple has always had a small stable, three or four horses.

Sunday, when Stone Rain starts as a longshot in the Malibu, they may have their finest hour in the sport.