01/26/2009 12:00AM

Switch to private trainer paying off


ARCADIA, Calif. - As of last weekend, there were a dozen races left on the national calendar described as "Oaks" before the big one in Kentucky on the first Friday in May, including the Oregon Oaks, the Bourbonette Oaks, and the Sunshine Millions Oaks, run Saturday at Santa Anita for a purse of $250,000.

Jack Carava and owner Ron Valenta's La Canada Stable nailed that one with Beltene, now 3 for 3 and already making her $30,000 price tag a blinding bargain. Never mind that the fillies in this particular Oaks were only asked to run six furlongs, or that Beltene once ran for a $40,000 claiming tag. Carava's got an Oaks winner in the barn now, so deal with it.

"How about that?" Carava said, having just won the second-biggest pot of his 15-year career as a head trainer. "And all I could talk about driving home that night was complain they only give the winner 55opercent of the purse instead

of 60."

This would be typical of the pragmatic Carava. He is not a glass half-full or half-empty kind of guy, but the glass definitely needs a wash and a rinse and great care if you're going to use it again. Carava's reputation hinges mainly on his success with claimers - the stable won a $10,000 claiming race on the Millions undercard - but his operation fairly reeks of class, and it is no surprise that, at the age of 42, he seems poised to begin winning bigger and better races.

These days, in his role as Valenta's private trainer, Carava has the luxury of keeping his focus laser sharp on just one grand plan, rather than spreading his creative energies among a number of patrons. Still, a private job can be a blessing and a curse. Even when such positions were more common, the rope was always tight, and a private trainer was only an owner's whim away from unemployment.

"The man wanted me to blister all his horses," Charlie Whittingham told his vet, Jack Robbins, the day after Maj. C.C. Moseley gutted the Whittingham stable, toward the end of 1964. "I told him it wasn't such a good idea. He told me to do it anyway. So I told him where to put the peaches."

Whittingham, being Whittingham, bounced back pretty quick. The lesson remained, though, and Charlie took pains never to paint himself into such a corner again.

"Jack asked me years ago if I would think about it," said Valenta, the founder of Mobil Services Group and head of an investment network. "I was uncomfortable with the idea of Jack taking that kind of a risk if something were to happen to me."

Carava weighed the pros and cons of such a move and then began phasing out other owners last spring. Now, there's nothing but Valenta's red and white silks - representing the flag of his family's native Austria - going postward under Carava's name.

"Ron is really the only person I've ever trained for that I would feel comfortable doing this with, for a lot of reasons," Carava said. "I've trained for him a number of years already, and we're very tight. Obviously, he has the resources to keep a barn full of horses. And the stable is diversified, as far as claimers and young horses, while trying to find a nice horse to buy when you can."

Diversification is probably smart, especially in a California racing climate treading water to find its level. At the same time, there seems to be any number of stakes events with small or weak fields ripe for plunder. Why not swing for the fences and acquire a few life-changing animals?

"I think there's only room for a certain number of expensive buys before you're spending too much," Carava said. "And good horses can come from everywhere. Look how many horses were claimed in the last 10 years that turned out to be some of California's better horses."

One of them was Pure Gold, claimed by Valenta for $100,000, who gave Carava the richest score of his career when he won the 2006 Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar. Carava and Valenta also have won three stakes with Epic Power, including the 2006 California Cup Mile.

Beltene is a daughter of Unusual Heat who was bought by Valenta at a Barretts auction last October. (She was already named, for a family of fictional vampires, as opposed to real vampires.) The Unusual Heat phenomenon does not appear to be slacking off, as the son of Nureyev continues to produce offspring who win early and run often. Beltene made her first start for Carava on Dec. 11, winning for that $40,000 tag. Forty-five days later, kaching . . . Oaks winner!

"She's had three races in about six weeks, so she's due for a little rest," Carava said. "Just some light training while she puts on some weight. She's not the kind of filly you can give a lot of time. But she did go boom-boom-boom. Someone said that wasn't like me. I told them it wasn't as if the Unusual Heats weren't used to it."

Carava and Valenta held off predictions of Oaks adventures in Beltene's future. Flamboyant they are not.

"Jack's got the Oaks winner," Valenta insisted. "I'm just in the background. And we're still just absorbing it. I think we really just enjoyed the moment."

Buckle up. Looks like there could be more to come.