12/18/2002 12:00AM

A throwback's time has come

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - As phone calls go, the one trainer Rafael Becerra got last May during the Barretts sale of 2-year-olds in Pomona ranks right up there. The man on the other end of the line represented Stan Fulton, owner of Sunland Park and a Thoroughbred patron of growing influence, and Mr. Becerra was asked if he could take a meeting. Mr. Becerra could not shave and shower fast enough.

One thing led to another, and now, as the 2002 season draws to a close, Becerra finds himself the proud trainer of two stakes-winning 2-year-olds for Fulton, with rich opportunites ahead and prospects of more good horses on the horizon. Amazing. At the age of 48, after 30 years in horse racing, Rafael Becerra is an overnight success.

Of course, there is no such thing, especially in the racing business, where longevity and reputation trump splash and flash every time. Becerra's dues have been fully paid for years. Finally, he is seeing a return on the investment.

Crackup, a son of Distorted Humor, emerged from that Barretts sale to win his maiden by eight at Del Mar, then win the California Cup Juvenile and the Great State Challenge Juvenile at Sam Houston Park.

Roll Hennesy Roll began his career with John Jamison, Fulton's New Mexico trainer. After three easy wins, it occurred to the Fulton crew that the colt might be ready for California prime time, and they were right. In his second start for Becerra, Roll Hennesy Roll ran off with the Prevue Stakes at Hollywood Park.

That was Nov. 23. On Saturday, Roll Hennesy Roll will take on Norfolk Stakes winner Kafwain and Champagne and Remsen winner Toccet for the big money in the Hollywood Futurity. It has been 19 years since Becerra had anything serious to do with the Futurity - he was Gary Jones's foreman in 1983 when they sent out Fali Time to win the race - but if Becerra is intimidated, he is hiding it well.

"They've all got four legs, and the best horse is going to win," Becerra said Wednesday morning after training. "My job is to get my horse over there in the best shape I can. After that, you've got to have luck."

In the beginning, Becerra mostly made his own luck. The kid from the Mexican state of Jalisco (Paco Gonzalez country) wanted to work at the Southern California tracks more than anything, and nothing short of a tall stone wall was going to stop him.

"He worked for my dad at first, and you could see he had a lot of desire," said Gary Jones, whose father is Farrell Jones. "I think he was deported approximately 12 times. But he wouldn't take no. The INS would sweep through and send him back home to Guadalajara. I don't know how he did it, but Rafael would be back the next morning. My dad finally said, 'We've got to get this guy his papers.' "

Becerra worked his way up through the Jones ranks, and even served a stint as head trainer in early 1994 when Gary served a 30-day suspension for a medication positive. Major stakes winners Lakeway and Stuka were in the stable at the time.

"I was glad when Gary got back," Becerra said. "That was more pressure than I could take at the time."

When Gary Jones retired in the spring of 1996, Becerra went on his own. A couple of Jones clients stuck with Becerra, including the Dilbeck family of Glendale, Calif., owners of the stakes sprinter Kingdom Found. Becerra kept the old horse going as long as he could. After that, it got real quiet.

At one point, Becerra even closed up shop to take on a position as an assistant in The Thoroughbred Corp. organization when Alex Hassinger was training the main California stable. The money was good but, as Becerra admits, the fit was not. He went back out on his own, winning what he could with lower-level horses and hoping for a break.

"How are you going to make a horse run if he's got nothing, by nothing, out of nothing," Becerra said of his fallow years. "It's impossible. But you can't treat the $10,000 horses any different than the $200,000 horses. I can't cut any corners. Still, sometimes you end up saying, 'What am I doing?' "

Lately, he has been doing exactly what his old boss used to do. In his heyday, Gary Jones was known for his break-neck morning commutes from Hollywood Park to Santa Anita to supervise both barns of his operation.

Becerra does not yet have the horsepower of his mentor, but he figured that if he was going to win the Hollywood Futurity, he knew he had to keep Roll Hennesy Roll training at Hollywood Park, even though the main barn was clear across town.

"I have to see him every day," Becerra said, "so I start at Hollywood, then drive against traffic to Santa Anita. It's frustrating sitting in the car, since there is only about 4 1/2 hours to train every day. You want to be there with the horses.

"I can't complain, though. The work comes with more energy when there are good horses waiting for you. I feel so good about it, and so lucky, after all the time I've put into this business. Here it's started to go the right way."