02/14/2003 1:00AM

Track beckons to ailing McAnally


ARCADIA, Calif. - Normally, if his vantage point on the grandstand steps near the top of the Santa Anita stretch is vacant for more than a couple of days, that means Ron McAnally is in France, or Ireland, or roaming somewhere around South America looking for the next good horse.

Except this week.

This week McAnally has been going toe to toe with what was diagnosed as a case of old fashioned pneumonia. You know, the kind that comes with a raging fever, noodle-weak arms and legs, labored breathing, and a sobering glimpse of one's own frail mortality.

Compounding the symptoms, Thoroughbred trainers also must deal with the fact that they are indispensible. At least, that's what they are told when the license is issued. Vacations are rare, family outings are a luxury, and illness is out of the question. How will the game survive without them?

"They need me?" McAnally said, thinking of his horses. He laughed a little as he said it, just enough to show that he was feeling better and already planning his return to work. For now, though, McAnally was at home in his Pasadena residence, under strict supervision from his wife, Debbie, who was prepared to strap him down with duct tape and baling twine if he made the slightest move in the direction of the track.

Still, when you have done the same thing every morning for nearly half a century, the habit is hard to break. Never mind a temperature of 102. Besides, at the age of 70, McAnally is not even a senior citizen in his line of work. The "About Schmidt" perils of forced retirement do not pertain, especially when there are young kids like Bobby Frankel (61), Wayne Lukas (67), Bill Spawr (63), Jack Van Berg (66), and Wally Dollase (65) barking at his heels.

Clearly, in the horse training profession, wisdom comes late and tends to linger. Is someone like McAnally a better trainer today than he was in 1970, when he had the audacity to run the lightly weighted Luz del Sol in the Santa Maria Handicap against champion Gallant Bloom? He'd better be.

Luz del Sol finished third, beaten five lengths by the champ in a pretty good effort. McAnally learned from that experience and went on to win the Santa Maria five times, with an additional six second-place finishes between 1989 and 2001. Only Charlie Whittingham won as many.

McAnally will have a chance to win his sixth Santa Maria on Sunday with Printemps, owned by John Amerman and raised in Chile. Printemps won the 2001 Hawthorne Handicap at Hollywood Park as if big things were in her future.

Since then, however, minor setbacks and disappointments have kept her out of the headlines, although she has been second or third in such quality races as the Spinster, the Santa Margarita, the Falls City. But only once did she come running as if she meant business. That was in the 2002 version of the Santa Maria, in which she was beaten a length by Favorite Funtime.

McAnally's work with imports is well established. Three of his Santa Maria winners were from South America - champions Bayakoa and Paseana, as well as Lovellon, his winner from 2001. Printemps is threatening to join them, especially if she runs back to her most recent performance in an overnight handicap, fittingly named for Paseana.

"I wasn't here for the race, but it was a good one," McAnally said. "I was actually at the farm in Chile where Printemps was raised, looking for another one like her. Lido Palace came from that same farm. And our stakes winner Seinne."

In the Paseana, Printemps finished with her usual rush to win by three. Those she will face on Sunday are measurably better, with You going back to work for Frankel and Starrer making her first start of the year for the John Shirreffs barn.

As of Friday, McAnally was more concerned with the condition of the guy who trains Printemps. If he treats himself like his horses, he will be just fine.

"I called Dan this morning and told him I thought I needed one more day," McAnally said, referring to his assistant, Dan Landers. "I feel stronger today. I've been eating a little bit better. That's helping me get my strength back."

Compared to last Monday, McAnally is practically kicking up his heels. He spent a night at Huntington Memorial Hospital, with I.V.'s attached and antibiotics at work, before he was able to head back home. By his recollection, McAnally's last hospital stay was also for pneumonia, during his stint in the Air Force while stationed in Alaska. That was 50 years ago.

Since then, his Hall of Fame career has taken McAnally far and wide on the wings of such champions as John Henry, Tight Spot, and Northern Spur, as well as Bayakoa and Paseana. His stable is strong again this winter, with Affluent leading the way, which is why the question posed during the hospital admissions process seemed so bizarre.

"When did you retire?" McAnally was asked. Had he felt up to it at the time, he might have smiled. Thankfully, Debbie McAnally had enough of a reaction for both of them: "Are you kidding?"

That said it all.