01/30/2003 12:00AM

The ultimate road warrior


ARCADIA, Calif. - The travel lines never show in Daily Racing Form. If they did, Pass Rush would have been 100-1 the last time he ran in Southern California.

Those who took 7-2 on Pass Rush in the Jan. 11 San Fernando Stakes were doing so without the knowledge that the colt needed 15 hours to get from south Florida to Los Angeles, beginning at the Palm Meadows training center, taking off from Ft. Lauderdale, and stopping over in Orlando, Nashville, and Dayton before finally touching down at LAX and loading onto a van bound for Santa Anita.

Just writing that was exhausting.

"Pat wondered if we should even run," said Kevin Willey, Pass Rush's traveling companion, as he recalled his conversation with trainer Pat Byrne upon their arrival.

But run he did, and the results were impressive. Pass Rush left Tracemark and Tizbud in the dust with a 3 1/2-length victory after 1 1/16 miles of work. So much for jet lag.

In the natural order of events, the San Fernando usually leads newly turned 4-year-olds to the 1 1/8-mile Strub Stakes, which will be run on Saturday for a purse of $400,000. Having survived his last journey westward, Pass Rush is back again. And this time, he had a better travel agent.

"Straight through," said Willey, who was in familiar surroundings at Barn 45. "We hitched a ride last Sunday with the California horses coming back from the Sunshine Millions. It made quite a difference."

Good thing, too, because Pass Rush will need to be fresh and fit if he is to contend with Medaglia d'Oro, winner of the 2002 Travers and runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Classic, who will be making his 4-year-old debut in the Strub for Bobby Frankel and owner Edmund Gann. Castle Gandolfo, Tracemark, Olmodavor, and Easy Grades - all trained locally - will complete the field.

"He loves it here," Willey said as he led Pass Rush around the walking ring, flanked on one side by the backstretch cafeteria.

"He finds it endlessly entertaining," Willey went on. "Yesterday afternoon he got to watch a cock fight. He'll stop in the same spot and just look around. The hot-walking machines really have him curious. He doesn't see any of those back home."

Willey is making himself at home in California as well. His rental car of choice has been a Sebring convertible, which only makes sense, given the fact that it will be in the 80's on Saturday afternoon. Willey, a 41-year-old native of Oxfordshire, northwest of London, worked for a time with the noted English trainer Barry Hills while Steve Cauthen was on contract with the stable. He has been with the Byrne organization since 1996, and made earlier trips to California with Touch Gold for the 1997 Pacific Classic and Favorite Trick later the same year for the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park.

Pass Rush alone has taken Willey to such exotic locals as Prairie Meadows in Iowa, Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, and Sam Houston Race Track in Texas. They also made stops at Hoosier Park in Indiana, where Pass Rush was received as a native son. Which he is.

"That's right - an Indiana-bred and proud of it," Willey said. "Doesn't really matter where they come from if they can run like him."

Willey could have been talking about himself. For the first 20 years of his life, he could never quite figure out why he was the only member of his immediate family who was crazy about animals. There was no accounting for the fact that he was the first Willey he knew of to gravitate toward the Thoroughbred world.

Then, in a moment of epiphany, Willey learned that his paternal grandfather was in fact a steeplechase jockey, killed in action while his grandmother was pregnant with his father. She subsequently married Mr. Willey, hence the family name. Apparently, Willey's talents were always in the cards, once they skipped a generation. "It might be the same with him," Willey said, nodding toward Pass Rush. "His sire is Crown Ambassador, who's by Storm Cat, and believe me, the Storm Cat comes out in him. He's got a few people back home scared of him, when all he wants to do is play. That's why it's fun to be on the road, with just him and me."

Right on cue, Pass Rush stopped cold, reached down and tugged at his cooler, then grabbed a piece of his lead shank and dared Willey to say no. Willey just laughed and played with the colt's long, sheep dog forelock. With a record of 5 wins and 5 seconds in 15 starts for Michael Tabor, Pass Rush is allowed his eccentricities. If he runs to his looks on Saturday, he will add considerably to his purse winnings of $376,120.

"Believe it or not, I think he looks better than he did the last time we came out," Willey said. To illustrate, he pulled away the yellow cooler to reveal the colt's etched chestnut physique, complete with dark dapples the size of saucers decorating both hips. This was not a homesick animal.

"Those just came out," Willey said, admiring the healthy red coat. "His California dapples."