04/20/2006 11:00PM

These trips require planning


ARCADIA, Calif. - The "invitational" part of Santa Anita's closing day San Juan Capistrano Invitational Handicap was taken very seriously. Thirteen entered, glad to be asked, representing such far-flung Thoroughbred outposts as Brazil, Argentina, England, France, and Australia, not to mention Kentucky, Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York. Apparently, the Irish and the Californians had other plans.

In the end, their origins don't really matter. The 14 furlongs of the San Juan Capistrano serve as a merciless leveler, reducing the issue to the ability to carry a reasonable amount of speed farther than they are normally required in run-of-the-mill races of 1 1/2 miles or less.

At one time, the San Juan was won by the best older horses on the grounds. Names like Olden Times, Quicken Tree, Fiddle Isle, Cougar II, John Henry, and Kotashaan decorate the list of champions.

In 1968, the year the Irish horse Niarkos won the second of his consecutive San Juans, the race was worth $125,000. That made it the second-richest grass race in America, behind only the $150,000 Washington, D.C. International. Adjusted for inflation, that $125,000 purse would be worth in the neighborhood of $700,000 today, putting it in the same league as the Arlington Million, the Man o' War, the Canadian International, and the Turf Classic.

Instead, the modern San Juan is just another $250,000 horse race, drawing from a pool of long-distance runners who are becoming increasingly marginalized. As far as this reporter is concerned, they also put on the best show of the Santa Anita meet.

Veteran riders will point out that the San Juan presents a full examination of skills, making it a true test of discipline, strategy, and stamina, involving both horse and rider.

"It's a jockey's race, no doubt about it," said Jose Valdivia, who won the 2004 San Juan aboard Meteor Storm. "You need a rider that's going to keep his cool for that long a time. You need to save ground on at least two of the three turns you're going to hit. And both the horse and the rider have to be relaxed."

Valdivia has been named this time around to ride Misto Quente for Bobby Frankel and Brazil's TNT Stud. As with many of the travel-prone Frankel runners, there is always a chance that the trainer will opt for another race in another place for Misto Quente, who won at nine furlongs over the local course. But whether in the scrum or on the sidelines, Valdivia's approach to the unique San Juan is worth considering.

"The main thing you need is a horse that's going to relax, no matter where you are in the race," Valdivia said as he prepared for Friday's action. "It's really hard after you've gone that far to ask horses to quicken, especially when you've been holding them hard for a mile and a quarter.

"I've ridden all sorts of horses in the San Juan," he said. "One of them wanted to run off while he was on the lead. I remember being light for the race - when you go that far I think weight is an issue - but he was pulling so hard my arms were so numb I could hardly feel them. I was just trying to get him to settle, but the race was over for us at the three-eighths.

"Another time I was on a horse for Julio Canani. They wanted me to take him back, because I won from the back going a mile and a quarter. But once I got him back it was a fight to keep him there. You can use up all your strength doing that, when you need it for the final three-eighths most of all. We were fourth, beaten about two lengths.

"Meteor Storm was an unbelievable horse," he said. "I came out of the gate driving him to get position. Then once I took hold, he knew it was time to settle. I looked around and it seemed like every other horse was really pulling, so I sent him at the three-eighths and he just blew the race open. Alex Solis and Rhythm Mad got stuck behind horses, and when they came with their run it was too late."

Valdivia has been in the news lately as the rider of Buzzards Bay, the 2005 Santa Anita Derby winner who has reemerged for trainer Ron Ellis as a top 4-year-old, winning the recent Oaklawn Handicap by 6 1/2 lengths. Valdivia also has the homefront on his mind, where he and his wife, Renee, are expecting their first child.

"I'm just waiting for the call," Valdivia said. "I've let the stewards know it could happen any day. We know it's a girl, and her name is Siena, although if I were to name her after a horse, right now it would be Buzzy."

Misto Quente also has a nice ring, if Valdivia gets a shot. But even if he doesn't, he will be watching the San Juan as a loyal fan.

"I remember as a kid when I bet my two dollars on a horse," he said. "I loved the long races, because I would be thinking, 'My horse has a chance,' right up to the eighth pole. Even if he lost, at least I got more for my money."