01/31/2007 12:00AM

A tale fit for a press release


ARCADIA, Calif. - Mike Willman is resisting the idea that he has become an overnight working-class hero. But what else do you call a recently divorced single parent holding down a middle management racetrack job who has suddenly found out what it's like to live the same crazy dream he's been watching others enjoy for years?

As Santa Anita Park's director of publicity - a position held in the past by such widely respected individuals as Fred Purner, Dan Smith, and Jane Goldstein - Willman already was having a good day last Saturday even before the running of the climactic Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream Park.

More than 36,000 fans had braved stormy skies and intermittent drizzles to show up at Santa Anita, a record turnout for the fifth version of the Sunshine Millions program. Even more exciting for Willman was the fact that those 36,000 got to watch local star Lava Man at his best in the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf, erasing the taste of his flop in the Breeders' Cup Classic and setting up a defense of his crown in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 3.

For someone in Willman's position, the Lava Man saga can't be told enough. With its Cinderella trappings of a $50,000 claim turned into earnings of more than $4 million, Lava Man's story is red meat for a publicist trying to sell the game. That such a relatively modest investment can put a group of owners on top of the world is the stuff of sporting fairy tales come true.

Of course, a Lava Man comes along only once, maybe twice, in a generation. Success as a horse owner at that level is difficult and rare, and the idea of winning a million-dollar horse race is downright absurd, as Willman would have testified - at least before the events of last Saturday afternoon.

Those who watched the Sunshine Millions Classic on TV in the Santa Anita press box knew something strange was going on when Corey Nakatani starting screaming, "Come on, Mike!" Nakatani was in the middle of a postrace Lava Man press conference, still wearing Lava Man silks, when the gates opened for the $1 million Classic, 3,000 miles away. By the time the Gulfstream field hit the top of the stretch, it was becoming clear to Nakatani and everyone else in the box that McCann's Mojave, owned by Mike Willman, was going to have something to say about the result.

Since the early 1980's, Willman, 50, has held just about every frontside job the racetrack can offer, from mutuel clerk to on-air TV host and radio personality. Willman fans know him as a die-hard disciple of all things "old school," whose broadcast style can range from self-deprecating charm to heartfelt filibuster. Inveterately social, brimming with tall racetrack tales, Willman delivers the goods with a booming tenor that renders microphone technology moot, posing interview questions that sometimes last far longer than any possible answer.

Willman also put what money he could where his mouth was, buying his first Thoroughbred in 1984 and maintaining a horse or two, off and on, ever since. Even before last Saturday, McCann's Mojave was his best. With more than $600,000 in earnings spread out over five seasons, he was more than paying his own way.

Then came the moment when McCann's Mojave, a 7-year-old son of Memo, won the Sunshine Millions Classic at odds of 33-1 with three-quarters of a length to spare. Willman, overcome with emotion in the wake of the race, found himself making news instead of spreading it.

"I'm not from a racing background," said Willman, a Southern California native. "My parents didn't have any money. I went to high school in El Monte. If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody, and I truly mean that. This is the kind of game where things can happen. I've had a lot of luck prior to this. But this is just beyond description."

Willman's boss, Santa Anita president Ron Charles, has never won a million-dollar race, even though he has spent considerable sums in trying.

"There are owners who invest tens of millions of dollars who don't get a chance to share that type of thrill," Charles said. "And you had to pull for Mike. After what he's been through, I'm just so happy for him."

Willman made no secret of his ugly divorce and his desperate quest to retain full custody of his two sons, Jason, 8, and Matthew, 4. He succeeded, but at a financial cost that nearly put McCann's Mojave on the auction block last fall. McCann's Mojave showed his gratitude by winning $550,000 last Saturday.

"This has been a blessing, a miracle," Willman said. "This completely stabilizes everything for me and my kids. We'll get to keep our house. I'll be able to get them the right kind of care. All anybody needs to know is that I'm here with my boys."

As far as McCann's Mojave is concerned, he has certainly earned a place in California racing lore. But he is also healthy, fit, and riding a three-race winning streak, which means Willman and his Golden Gate-based trainer, Steve Specht, must make some decisions about what comes next.

"Right now," Willman said, "all I really want to do is take the boys up north for a day and visit my horse."