03/29/2007 12:00AM

Stormello takes a more challenging path


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Bill Currin lives in a Hollywood Hills residence once owned by Clark Gable, and owns horses named Call Me Rhett and Where's Scarlett. But for many, including rival trainers, who have observed Currin's handling of Stormello this spring, they think Currin has gone with the wind.

While most trainers of top contenders for the Kentucky Derby have followed tradition by seeking the easiest preps, preferring to wait until as close to May 5 as possible to find the toughest spots, Currin has turned Derby preparation on its head. Despite having far softer options, Currin sent Stormello from his base here at Hollywood Park to Florida earlier this month for the Fountain of Youth Stakes in order to take on Nobiz Like Shobiz, at the time the Derby favorite, in Stormello's first start since capturing the Hollywood Futurity 2 1/2 months earlier.

Now, despite the grueling trip to Florida for the Fountain of Youth, and again having seemingly easier options for a final Derby prep, Currin is sending Stormello back to Gulfstream Park for the Grade 1, $1omillion Florida Derby on Saturday.

"Is he allergic to Santa Anita?" a rival trainer with a Florida Derby contender asked this week.

To be sure, the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 7 looks like a far more suitable spot. It does not involve shipping, and Stormello already has a win over that track, having captured last fall's Norfolk Stakes. Currin also bypassed Santa Anita's Robert Lewis Stakes, which was the same day as the Fountain of Youth on March 3. Currin is well aware that many people are puzzled by the path he has chosen, but, frankly, he doesn't give a damn.

"I'm not looking to duck anybody," Currin said. "We have one objective, to win the Kentucky Derby, and you can't do that picking soft spots."

Familiarity also entered the picture. The Florida Derby mirrors the Fountain of Youth in that both are 1o1/8-mile races at Gulfstream. "He liked the track, and I think this is a similar bunch," he said.

Stormello was a narrow loser in the Fountain of Youth to Scat Daddy; both are in the Florida Derby.

Currin also was able to secure a horse plane for this trip, so Stormello was able to fly directly from Los Angeles to Ft. Lauderdale on Wednesday night, unlike four weeks ago, when Stormello had to fly via Federal Express, and was delayed by mechanical failure during a stopover in Dallas.

"It could not be a worse trip than last time," said Currin's assistant, Nacho Correas. "He had to change planes in Dallas, but the plane that was going to pick him up broke down, so they had to change planes. It took 14 hours to get to Florida."

Currin, 70, has other motives. He wants Stormello to be perceived as a leading stallion prospect, and believes the best way to showcase the chestnut colt is to take him around the country.

"I think there's always an East Coast bias," he said. "I wanted to knock off Nobiz Like Shobiz and expose him to the Kentucky breeders. All those farmers are in Florida this time of year, basking in the sun. California is thought of as a regional place. It's not. We have some of the best horses."

And, there is the not insignificant amount of the purse. "The Santa Anita Derby is a quarter-million dollars short," he said.

Currin is good with money. Though he had a background with horses during his youth riding hunters and jumpers in North Carolina, and once hoped to be an actor, he has had a long, profitable career as builder of luxury homes in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and the Bay Area of California. Currin Construction Company is now largely run by his son, Patrick.

The success in business has allowed Currin to become more involved with his passion, racehorses. He trains 20 horses at Hollywood Park, assisted by Correas, who has been with Currin for nearly three years. In that time, Currin's best horses have included Memorette, the winner of the Beverly Hills Handicap, and Stormello. Currin has an easygoing manner, enhanced by a Southern lilt in his voice, but he is serious about his horses.

"The rules around the barn are no beer, no cigarettes, no straw in the tail, and I don't want any of my gray horses looking green," he said.

Currin and his wife of 51 years, Betty, own their horses with Al Eisman, the owner of Blue Haven Pool Company in San Diego. They purchase some of their horses at auction, but many, like Stormello, are homebreds. Should Stormello go on and win the Kentucky Derby, Currin would become only the third person to breed, own, and train a Derby winner, following Thomas McDowell (Alan-A-Dale, 1902) and T.P. Hayes (Donerail, 1913).

Currin is a natural ham, and he is enjoying the attention. If a camera or notebook is nearby, his radar kicks in. "I came out here to be a movie star," he said, "and I became a TVG star."

Like someone else who lived near Sunset Blvd., Bill Currin is ready for his close-up.

In other Derby developments:

* The Florida Derby drew a field of nine when post positions were determined on Wednesday morning. In addition to Stormello and Scat Daddy, other members of the in the field are Adore the Gold, Chelokee, and Notional.

* In Dubai on Saturday, the Group 2, $2 million United Arab Emirates Derby includes the highly regarded filly Folk, and Nashua Stakes winner Day Pass, who disappointed in his first start in the desert this year. That race, as well as the Dubai World Cup, will be seen on tape delay from 2:30-4:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday on ABC.

* Street Sense, in his first work since his victory in the Tampa Bay Derby, breezed a half-mile in 48 seconds on Wednesday morning at the Palm Meadows training center for trainer Carl Nafzger. Street Sense, last year's Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male, is scheduled to have his final Derby prep in the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14.

* Ramon Dominguez is becoming a hot commodity. He picked up the mount on Chelokee in the Florida Derby, and now will ride Sam P. in the Santa Anita Derby.

* With Nobiz Like Shobiz and Circular Quay in the Grade 1, $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 7, there is a chance Cowtown Cat will head to Hawthorne for the Illinois Derby on April 7. Both Circular Quay and Cowtown Cat are trained by Todd Pletcher.

* The Grade 2, $500,000 Illinois Derby will be headed by Cobalt Blue, who won the San Felipe.