04/04/2003 12:00AM

Too wise to catch Derby fever


ARCADIA, Calif. - Consider the pressure heaped on a colt who just happens to be of Derby age.

There are perhaps 16,000 of them born and registered every year, and of those, maybe 11,000 might make it to the races. From there the demographics broaden. Horses tend to seek their rightful level. But for those who make the mistake of winning a race with flair and exhibiting a trace of quality, expectations begin to rain down like frogs in a Biblical plague.

It becomes the Derby, or nothing.

Thank goodness, then, for guys like Mike Willman and his old-school trainer, Leonard Dorfman. When the unbeaten McCann's Mojave won for the third time at the meet last Wednesday, stretching out to win for the first time at a mile, they did not make immediate plane reservations for Louisville, nor did they call the Galt House to inquire about a suite.

"There's no substitute for patience in this business," said Willman, a racing talk-show host and emcee of both the Hollywood and Del Mar simulcasts. "Sure, you've got to try and play this game the way the big players do. But by the same token, you've got to be very realistic, and realize that guys like us, we don't have anything in reserve."

Hard as it may have been, they resolved to point McCann's Mojave to the $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes for Cal-bred 3-year-olds, even though the last Saturday in April at Hollywood Park doesn't have quite the same vibe as the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

"Sometimes, the egos start getting inflated," said Dorfman, who has seen plenty of dreams come and go in his 80 years. "If we'd had a little more racing experience under this horse, chances are Mike would be thinking of something like the Lexington Stakes. But as it stands now, it looks like we'll go over to Hollywood.

"And we can run 'Sweetcakes' the same day in a seven-eighths race," the trainer added.

Willman and his partner, Nikki Hunt, also own the venerable mare Sweetcakesanshakes, a winner this winter. The other member of Dorfman's three-horse stable is the maiden Always Fighting. Among them, they have run 10 times at the meet, with four wins, a second, and a third.

Dorfman is having a blast, but he is not exactly a stranger to good horses.

He trained Travel Orb, a tough-minded gelding who beat Native Diver twice during the summer of 1966 in both the Californian and the American Handicap at Hollywood Park. Minnesota Chief was an erratic, talented 3-year-old of 1981 who won the Cinema Handicap at Hollywood, the La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar, and managed to get himself disqualified from an easy victory in the Santa Catalina at Santa Anita.

"He also ducked out from under Don Pierce about 100 yards from the finish of a seven-eighths race," Dorfman added, referring to one of Minnesota Chief's more notorious gaffs. "He could be a crazy sonofagun."

Some of Dorfman's best work has been in the ongoing cultivation of the family originated in the 1960's by his former patron Frank Cozza, the man known in California produce circles as the "Tomato King."

Tomato Miss, a foal of 1959, started it all by producing Edes Ilona, a daughter of Grey Eagle who produced the half-sisters Long Issue, in 1974, and Joni U. Bar, in 1980. Long Issue won eight races, while Joni U. Bar won 16, including a small stakes. Joni U. Bar is the dam of McCann's Mojave, while Long Issue is the granddam of Sweetcakesanshakes.

"With Leonard, the horse always comes first," Willman said. "He's painfully realistic, and he's got incredible natural instincts. If he's got a feel about something, he's right. It's my job to listen."

As one of the original settlers of Santa Anita in the 1930's, with a rich memory fully intact, Dorfman is also a natural resource of unlimited value.

There is no substitute for the voice of living history, which is why Laura Hillenbrand tapped Dorfman - a known associate of Red Pollard and George Woolf - for his recollections during the research phase of her work on "Seabiscuit."

Unfortunately, his part was not cast in the movie.

"I missed the boat on that one," Dorfman said with a laugh. "But it was fun talking about those days, and seeing what has happened with the book and the movie."

For Dorfman, the events of this winter have been nothing short of a blessed renaissance. Recent years have been dry, as his vast experience was going to waste on slow, well-meaning animals. Now he is greeted each morning by McCann's Mojave in one stall and "Sweetcakes" in the other, truly a sight for sore eyes.

"They've really picked my head up," Dorfman said. "There's nothing worse than getting out of your car and walking up to your barn, and then knowing you haven't got a chance."

Sometimes, a chance is all it takes.