01/24/2007 12:00AM

Two veterans roll into Florida


ARCADIA, Calif. - With just a little coaxing, California export Steve Specht began having his very own Florida flashbacks.

"The last time I was in the Gulfstream barn area I was rubbing horses for a guy named Eddie Kelly - E.I. Kelly - who trained for Harry Isaacs of Brookfield Farm and all those horses whose names started with an 'I,' " Specht said. "That was 1967. Things have changed a little."

Check that. Things have changed a lot. In the 40 years since Specht drew a paycheck from Kelly, Gulfstream has gone from laboring in the long shadow of Hialeah to providing the only winter game in town. The track has expanded, the grandstand has shrunk, and now, much to Specht's delight, modern Gulfstream is putting on a restricted, million-dollar race at the precise moment that the Specht stable has a racehorse worthy of participation.

Specht, 57, is on the Florida scene from his Golden Gate base with McCann's Mojave for Saturday's fifth running of the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic. McCann's Mojave, 7, will have his hands full with Sweetnorthernsaint in the nine-furlong Classic. But he is the kind of old pro who just might rise to this particular occasion.

At least, that's how owners Mike Willman and Alix Hunt see it, and Specht agrees. The trainer is currently presiding over a resurrection of fortunes for McCann's Mojave, which includes two straight victories over sloppy main tracks in northern California.

For a blue-collar Cal-bred, McCann's Mojave has had it pretty good. He spent the first 10 starts of his career with Len Dorfman, who nursed the flashy bay through a sore hock to win five races, including a Grade 2 sprint. His next 10 starts - better known as Chapter II - were made for Paddy Gallagher and featured a victory in the 2005 California Cup Classic at Santa Anita.

Chapter III commenced without fanfare last fall when McCann's Mojave was shifted from Santa Anita to Specht at Golden Gate. At that point, the horse had lost five straight without showing much of his old spark. Specht insists there were no miracles employed.

"When he came to me from Gallagher he was in good shape, so I'm not going to say I did anything special with him," Specht noted. "I think possibly that hooking a little easier company got his head picked up, and hopefully it stays picked up for this race."

A quick look at his past performances reveals that McCann's Mojave has consorted with some very good horses, including Lava Man, Speightstown, Unfurl the Flag, Imperialism, and Captain Squire, while earning more than $600,000. But even the classiest veteran can grow weary, beating his head against such walls without winning. Specht is not the only trainer who believes in the subtle power of a confidence-builder.

"You wouldn't think that a horse could rationalize that, but they do," said Specht, a second-generation horseman with deep Midwestern roots. "It happens all the time with claiming horses - running fourth and fifth for $20,000 or $25,000, then dropping them down. They win easy, then the next thing you know they're beating those same $20,000 horses they used to be losing to."

Specht was particularly impressed with the effort of McCann's Mojave in his last start, the 1 1/16-mile Union Square Handicap at Golden Gate Fields, on a cold and rainy Dec. 26.

"The weather change was kind of a concern, coming to Florida from the winter we've been having," Specht said. "But since he's been here I think he looks as good or better than any of the Florida horses I've seen."

This will be the first time McCann's Mojave, a son of Memo, will compete outside his home state since finishing second to Speightstown in the Churchill Downs Handicap on May 1, 2004.

"Since I've had him, hauling's never been a problem," Specht said. "Sometimes he gets a little rattled when he gets to a new stall, but he settled in good, ate up all his feed, and I took him to the track this morning."

Still, this will be a tall challenge for McCann's Mojave, now an older gent perhaps set in his ways. The controversial Gulfstream Park saddling paddock, for instance, has undone more than one visitor.

"It looks good, but there's no shade for the horses," Specht said. "The sun beats right down on them. My horse sometimes gets a little heated up in the paddock, which is a concern. I'm not real big on schooling in the afternoon, though. Sometimes you can get them rattled pretty bad."

Specht had plenty of time to peruse the Classic field on the flight to Florida. To him - and everybody else - it's pretty obvious that Sweetnorthernsaint, favored over Barbaro and Brother Derek in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, is the headliner.

"He's a good horse, and if he gets his own way for very long then he gets pretty tough," Specht said. "There doesn't look like a helluva lot of speed in there to go with him, but my horse has enough to be right there to keep him honest.

"In a spot like this, though, you can't take anybody too lightly," Specht added. "To actually have a horse who has a shot for a million bucks, that feels pretty good. Of course, it will feel a whole lot better if I win it."