04/01/2004 12:00AM

Valdivia: What, me worry?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - A victory in the Santa Anita Derby gets people all worked up. Just like that, they think they've got the second coming of Swaps or Majestic Prince. Next stop, Kentucky Derby, and get ready to sniff those roses.

Without a doubt, the Santa Anita Derby is a race worth winning. If nothing else, the $450,000 first prize spends well, and the trophy makes for a cool conversation piece.

However, the perception of a win in the Santa Anita Derby as a key indicator for success in the Kentucky Derby is not really supported by hard history. In fact, over the past 25 years, only two Santa Anita Derby winners have gone on to victory in Kentucky - Winning Colors and Sunday Silence.

In 66 runnings, the Santa Anita Derby winner has taken the Kentucky Derby just seven times. Compare that to the Blue Grass Stakes (10 for 79, and 11 if you count disqualified Blue Grass winner Alysheba) or the Wood Memorial (11 for 84, although the disqualified Derby winner Dancer's Image would make it 12). Clearly, none of those three major Kentucky Derby previews can boast an edge in statistical significance.

Of course, stats mean nothing when mixed with flesh and blood. If the Kentucky Derby winner is in the Santa Anita Derby field here Saturday, we won't know for sure until early evening on Saturday, May 1. And even though seven nice young horses have entered, there is no standout, especially when three of the top contenders - Wimbledon, St Averil, and Rock Hard Ten - are still eligible for a two-other-than allowance.

The best tip for the Santa Anita Derby, at least since 1990, has been the identity of the jockey. If either Gary Stevens or Chris McCarron rode your horse, go to the window. Between them, they won a remarkable 13 of the last 16 runnings.

But on Saturday, Stevens will be otherwise occupied in France, and McCarron will be safely wrapped in a suit and tie as Santa Anita's general manager. That leaves the race up for grabs for one of seven riders who will be winning their first Santa Anita Derby.

Jose Valdivia figures it might as well be him. Valdivia, a 29-year-old native of Peru, will be riding Castledale, a longshot on the morning line but a proven commodity on the grass, as displayed by his win in the Generous Stakes last November at Hollywood Park. That was his first race off the plane from Ireland.

Valdivia has never ridden Castledale before, but their paths crossed recently in the San Rafael Stakes, run at Santa Anita on March 6. David Flores rode the colt that day.

"Around the three-eighths pole, I thought he was the winner," Valdivia recalled. "The horse I was riding was stopping on the fence. When David went by me he was still under a hold, moving like he had so much horse left for the drive. After that he seemed to just empty out."

Castledale ended up finishing sixth behind Imperialism and Lion Heart, beaten about eight lengths. Trainer Jeff Mullins indicated after the race that missed training time probably left Castledale a short horse. But the thought lingers - is Castledale as good on the dirt as he is on grass?

"A lot of times, good turf horses will fool you," Valdivia conceded. "So he is still a little bit of an unknown.

"But I'm really not concerned," the jockey added. "He looked very, very comfortable going by me that day. He also caught my eye in a [dirt] work one morning, and he seemed very much into the bridle, doing everything very easy."

Winning top stakes is nothing new to Valdivia. Among his credits are the 2001 Breeders' Cup Mile on Val Royal and no less than seven stakes with the popular sprinter Big Jag. Still, the rules of the game demand, "What have you done lately?"

Valdivia had to suffer through an uncharacteristic 0-for-73 streak at the beginning of the Santa Anita meet. He emerged from those depths to win the San Luis Rey Stakes two weeks ago and several races since, ending the cold spell in style.

"I wasn't really keeping track," Valdivia said. "So when I finally won a few and I read that I'd been 0 for 73, I didn't think it had been that bad. I told my wife, Renee, 'Aren't you proud of me? I went through that and I wasn't all that moody.'

"What kept me going was that I could never put either myself or the horses to blame," Valdivia noted. "Having that peace of mind kept me at ease."

At times, during the drought, Valdivia sought solace from a special trinity of mentors: his uncle Fernando Toro, his close friend Laffit Pincay, and his father, Jose, a former South American champion jockey in his own right.

"They understand," Valdivia said. "They went through things I haven't even experienced yet. And they believe in me. They wouldn't blow smoke up my behind, telling me I belonged here if I didn't."

Then, to top things off, the Valdivias took a whole different leap of faith.

"Right before I came out of the slump, we bought a house," Valdivia said. "I looked at it as motivational, and as something nice to look forward to. What was a little more pressure? Anyway, I really didn't think I was going to go forever without winning another race."