06/02/2001 12:00AM

Tennis ump makes good call: Only Silk

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For 20 weeks a year, Larry Becker travels around the country making decisions.

Becker, who lives in Sausalito, Calif., is a professional tennis umpire, spending almost half the year working major events on the men's and women's tours, such as the U.S. Open.

But another sporting decision that Becker made 10 years ago, about the same time that he retired as an attorney, has turned out to be an ace.

In September 1990, Becker bought the broodmare Only Silk from some friends. Becker paid about $2,000 for Only Silk, who in 1998 produced Channing Way, one of the most exciting 3-year-old fillies racing in California.

"Some friends of mine raced Only Silk, and they weren't doing anything with her." Becker said. "I thought I'd take a shot."

This year, Channing Way, who is by Smokester, has won 5 of 6 starts, including 4 consecutive stakes. In her last start, at Bay Meadows on May 27, Channing Way won the $60,400 Miss California Stakes for state-breds.

"I've been in the business for 20 years, and this is the best I've had," Becker said.

Trained by Dan Morgan, Channing Way has been based primarily at Turf Paradise, where she broke her maiden by seven lengths in her debut last December.

Since finishing third in the minor Excess Energy Stakes in January, Channing Way is unbeaten in four starts, including two stakes at Turf Paradise, the $150,000 Melair Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Hollywood Park on April 28, and the Miss California Stakes. In each race, she was ridden by Chance Rollins.

Her Melair Stakes victory was her only appearance in Southern California. Originally, Becker was going to race Channing Way in a $20,000 allowance race at Turf Paradise instead of the Melair. Becker thought the Melair might be too tough for her, but then he decided to take a shot. As it turned out, the Turf Paradise race didn't fill and was not run anyway.

"We didn't know what would happen," he said. "We knew she liked to go after other horses in the morning, but that's a different story."

Now, Becker and Morgan are thinking about a return to Southern California for the $75,000 Manhattan Beach Stakes over 5 1/2 furlongs on turf at Hollywood Park on June 29 or for the $100,000 Fleet Treat Stakes for California-breds over seven furlongs at Del Mar on July 22.

Becker said that the 20-year-old Only Silk is retired and living on a farm in Martinez, Calif. "Unfortunately, she was barren for the two years after Channing Way was born," he said. "I'd like to get her back in foal to Smokester, but I don't think there is any chance."

Smokester is best known as the sire of Free House, who earned $3.1 million in the late 1990's and is now at stud at Vessels Stallion Farm. Free House won several major stakes, including the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap. Smokester is also the sire of Bagshot, the winner of the 1999 California Cup Classic.

Free House helped publicize Smokester, who had a small number of foals in his first few crops. Based at Cardiff Stud Farms in Atascadero, Calif., Smokester stands for $10,000 and has had larger crops in recent years.

Channing Way is Becker's lone horse running this year. He has an interest in a pair of 2-year-olds by Dr. Caton and Devil His Due that are trained by Greg Gilchrist. He has another broodmare, with a partner, who has produced a Proud Irish suckling who was bred in California, and she has been bred back to Vaudeville.

"I've never had more than four or five horses at the most," Becker said. "Interestingly, Channing Way is the second horse I've had by myself. We couldn't ask her to do much more."