03/09/2007 12:00AM

Stakes-placing his way to riches

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. Unless you are talking about a horse named Wilko.

As a role model for high-profile frustration, Wilko has few peers. Indeed, he's more like the rest of hard-working America - a blue collar clock-puncher who shows up every day, puts in his shift, buys a six-pack and a lottery ticket on the way home, nods off to ESPN, and then does it all over again.

Wilko can be forgiven if he wonders what all the fuss was about in the first place. By the time he reached American shores, he already had raced 10 times at various British outposts without raising an eyebrow. Then, overnight, he was being hailed the conquering hero of the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which he upset at odds of 28-1.

Since then, Wilko has spent the last 2 1/2 years and 14 starts spinning his chestnut wheels, darting around the globe in futile search for his Lone Star youth.

After a while, just keeping track of Wilko's whereabouts became a parlor game. He was bred and sold in Kentucky, then raced in England, Texas, and California before being exposed to a greater public in the 2005 runnings of the Kentucky Derby (he was sixth) and Preakness (up the track). After a break, it was back to competition in California, off to Dubai, a brief reunion with trainer Jeremy Noseda in England, and then an invasion of New York during which Wilko was handed his head in three grim outings.

Since last summer, our vagabond has been back in California with his local trainer, Craig Dollase. Wilko was probably glad to be shed of New York, but he had a funny way of showing it.

"He got colic, bad enough that he had to have surgery," Dollase said this week from his Hollywood Park stable. "They had to take out a piece of the intestine to get rid of the blockage. We took our time and gave him a couple of months off, and now he's doing fine. He gave us a good effort last month in his first start back, so we're going to hope for a good effort on Sunday that might springboard to bigger things down the road."

Dollase was talking about Sunday's $75,000 Santana Mile, a race that goes once around the Santa Anita main track while Trevor Denman sings as much of "Black Magic Woman" as he can in about a minute and a half. Dollase also will be occupied on Sunday in the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks, sending out Oak Leaf Stakes winner Cash Included against heavily favored Rags to Riches. Paul Reddam owns both Dollase runners.

"She needed her race the other day," Dollase said, referring to Cash Included's fourth-place finish to Rags to Riches in the Las Virgenes Stakes on Feb. 10. She had not run since the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4.

"She's trained forwardly since then," Dollase added. "But there's always that 2-year-old to 3-year-old syndrome, so we'll see if she can make the transition."

Wilko came back to the races on Feb. 10 as well, in an allowance race on grass, with a fourth-place finish that was a clear indication he was a bit off his game. If nothing else, he has mastered the art of being third best, and he is never picky about the circumstances. In 25 lifetime starts, Wilko has found himself with the bronze medal nine times, ranging from a little $50,000 event in San Francisco to the world's richest race, and proving that a good living can be made from a steady diet of thirds. Consider:

o In the 2005 Santa Anita Derby, Wilko finished third, beaten a half-length, and earned $90,000.

o In the 2006 San Antonio Handicap, Wilko was third, beaten a length, banking $30,000.

Wilko came right back to finish third in the 2006 Santa Anita Handicap, and although he was beaten a significant amount by Lava Man, he earned $120,000 for his efforts.

Finally, in the 2006 Dubai World Cup, third paid off in a big way. Not only did Wilko earn $600,000 that night for his respectable third-place finish to Electrocutionist, he later collected another $600,000 without lifting a hoof when runner-up Brass Hat was disqualified for a medication violation.

"Sure, it's been frustrating, especially since he always tries so hard," Dollase said. "But it's not like he hasn't made plenty of money."

More than $2.4 million, in fact.

"Wilko is probably the most maligned horse who's ever won more than $2 million," Paul Reddam said. "He's been battling foot problems off and on for some time, but he's never had anything seriously wrong, other than the colic. He's just a little fighter."

Emphasis on little. Wilko always gives up height and weight to his competition on the tale of the tape. The 5-year-old version on display Sunday is not dramatically different from the 2-year-old version that won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"Physically, he hasn't changed too much," Dollase said. "He's always been a very professional horse, and a real pleasure to be around. By now he's actually kind of the barn pet. I'm just hoping he's got his same old spirit."