03/03/2005 1:00AM

Talent pool runs deep for Cal-breds


Brian Pitnick has been training for just 2 1/2 years and has just seven horses, but he is one of many who have benefited from a particularly deep crop of California-bred 3-year-olds this year.

Pitnick trains and co-owns Stellar Magic, who won the biggest race of his career in last month's San Mateo Mile at Bay Meadows. Second-place finisher Texcess, who was favored in that race after finishing third in the San Rafael Stakes, is another Cal-bred. Also this year, Uncle Denny was a close fourth in the Sham Stakes, Iced Out was a fast-finishing fifth in the Risen Star Stakes and was second in the San Rafael Stakes, and the Memo filly Memorette was an unlucky loser in the Las Virgenes Stakes.

Each of those performances came in open company, and with Stellar Magic and Uncle Denny pointing for the Grade 3, $200,000 El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows on March 12 and Memorette headed to the Grade 2, $300,000 Fair Grounds Oaks the same day, there will be more opportunities in upcoming weeks for Cal-breds to continue to make their mark against the best runners of their generation.

"I expect to run the horse in the El Camino Real Derby, and I hope I have the luxury after that of saying the sky's the limit," Pitnick said.

Pitnick, 45, is an attorney and a clear-eyed realist. While the prospect of having a top 3-year-old in the spring is exciting, Pitnick also wants to maximize opportunities with Stellar Magic by being prudent. So, he is trying to find the most appropriate spots, while being careful not to lose focus.

"I'm reluctant to take him on the road and shoot for the moon," said Pitnick, who is based at Bay Meadows. "When you run against bigger and better horses on their home tracks, the risk goes up. We'll try to pick our spots and have him progress. If he's managed wisely, I think him being champion California-bred 3-year-old is more realistic. He's a dream to train. I don't want to do anything to short-circuit that."

A gelding by Western Fame, Stellar Magic was purchased for $17,000 last May at Barretts. He already has earned $95,398, not including the lucrative bonuses that are part of California's owner and breeder program

Uncle Denny, an In Excess colt, is likely to head north for the El Camino Real, according to his trainer, Rafael Becerra. Uncle Denny won the first three starts of his career, including the California Breeders' Champion Stakes, before losing by less than two lengths to Going Wild in the Sham. Going Wild will be one of the top choices in Saturday's Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita.

"I'm either going to go to the El Camino Real or stay here for the San Felipe on March 19," Becerra said from his barn at Santa Anita. "I'm trying to get the easiest spot I can right now. Wilko is going to run in the San Felipe, so obviously that will be tough. I'm thinking of going up north. Sooner or later he's going to have to go out of town. His last race was good. He didn't quit. He just needs to relax and finish."

Texcess, who won last year's California Cup Juvenile and Delta Jackpot, may return to Louisiana for the Grade 2, $600,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 12 or await the Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park on March 26.

"We're going to give him a try to see if he belongs on the Triple Crown trail," said Paul Aguirre, who trains and co-owns Texcess, a gelding by In Excess who has earned $763,427. "I was disappointed he didn't relax earlier in his last race, so we're going to take the blinkers off him next time to see if that helps."

Lucky J.H., a son of Cee's Tizzy, won a statebred allowance race at Santa Anita in his last start. Trainer Carla Gaines said she is pointing Lucky J.H. for the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes at Hollywood Park on April 24, "but we need to figure out where to run him in March. He's nominated to the El Camino Real Derby and the San Felipe."

Lucky J.H. has taken ill twice in the past four months, but Gaines said he was back at full strength for his victory two weeks ago.

"It was a good race off a long layoff," she said. "I wanted to give him as much time as I could. He ran a very strong race. I think he's the sort of horse who only does what he has to do. At the quarter pole last time, he looked like he was going to take off, and then he acts like a dork. Hopefully he'll continue to improve."

Iced Out was making progress this spring, running a deceptively good race in the Risen Star, but he has gone to the sidelines with a sore shin, trainer Doug O'Neill said.