09/24/2010 1:12PM

Veteran back on familiar ground

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Jerry Fanning has been prowling the old precinct the last few weeks, training his handful of runners at Fairplex Park, where only Mel Stute has won more races. Fanning would have been at Santa Anita, up there in the same barn he has occupied since horses like Terlago, Desert Wine, and Little Reb roamed the land. But Santa Anita was pulled out from under Fanning and the other original settlers this fall – in anticipation of the removal of the synthetic main track – leaving them to fend for themselves in places like Inglewood and Pomona.

Luckily for Fanning, he knows his way around the fair. His 148 lifetime winners there trails Stute’s 187. But at the current meet, Fanning has won with two of his seven starters while Stute has taken the collar, so watch out Mel. Footsteps.

The fact that Stute is 83 and Fanning is 77 is pertinent only for those who think training racehorses is a young man’s game. Stute likes to cold-water his record by pointing out that, if you do the math, he has averaged only a very modest three or so winners a meet over the past 60 years, which is how long he has been training at the fair. Fanning, for his part, says he needs to keep training his smallish stable so he doesn’t “dry up and blow away.” That’s just how those guys talk.

Veterans like Fanning will have had their resilience tested, like the rest of the training colony, while spending their next several months in limbo as Santa Anita installs its replacement surface, Hollywood Park copes with a full house, and Fairplex does what it cane to accommodate the spillover. For his part, Fanning is the kind of guy who really doesn’t care which parking lot he pulls into before dawn each day, as long as it’s connected to a track that’s kind to his horses.

“I went a year and a half at Santa Anita and turned one filly out with a cracked shin – her second one,” Fanning said. “Here recently I’ve had to turn two out at Del Mar and three here. They bitched about the Santa Anita racetrack, but it was the safest one I was on all year.”

That ship has sailed, and a dirt track will be back to go alongside the Polytrack surface at Del Mar and the synthetic/sand hybrid at Hollywood.

“I think it’s bad when you keep changing surfaces,” Fanning noted. “The worst mistake was not putting in the same synthetic tracks at all the California tracks when they made the change. We might have been better off.

“But even dirt tracks can be different, and you’ll notice that every time you go to a different track for the first month it will take a toll on some horses,” Fanning added. “They’ll get used to traveling one way, then they’re asked to do something a little different and it puts a strain on them. You know it doesn’t take hardly anything at all for something to go wrong.”

Things mostly go right for Fanning at Fairplex, where on Sunday he will try to win the Ralph M. Hinds Handicap – formerly the Pomona Handicap – for the eighth time in a run that dates back to his first winner, the filly Our First Delight, in 1976.

Anyone who watched the white-legged, light chestnut Our First Delight in action at Pomona came away wondering why they all couldn’t make it look so easy. It was as if she was bred to turn left, and quickly, giving life to such bullring metaphors as “running like hoops around a barrel.”

“She ran faster on the old half-mile track than they do today on the five-eighths,” Fanning said.

Over the ensuing 10 years, Stiff Diamond, Mister Dan, Artichoke and two-time winner Drouilly followed Our First Delight as Fanning’s winners of the big one. Then he stepped back and gave the other guys a chance to catch up. It wasn’t until 2008 that Fanning won the race again, with longshot Booyah, owned by auto empressario Lath Hoffman.

Booyah is back on Sunday, when the Hinds will offer a pot of $75,000 and a field of 11 answers the call going a three-turn mile and one-eighth. Fanning was halfway hoping Booyah might not make the cut, if the field overfilled, but no such luck.

“This is one tough bunch this year,” Fanning said. “That Tres Borrachos has been running in Grade 1 and Grade 2 races. Cigar Man is going real good for Vladimir Cerin. And Baffert’s got two in there.”

Also, Booyah may not be the same Booyah who won the Hinds two years ago. (Sorry, but you just can’t say “Booyah” enough.) In the best form of his life, the son of Running Stag carried his form of late 2008 into the winter of 2009, when he finished a very good second to budding star Rail Trip in an allowance event.

Shortly after that, Hoffman sent Booyah to Canada with the intention of tapping into the riches of the casino-flush Woodbine purse structure. For his trouble, Booyah managed two fourth-place finishes in five starts for Roger Attfield and came home with the label of a $20,000 claimer.

“He cracked his hind leg, that’s what happened,” Fanning said. “But he’s doing real good right now, so we’ll just give ‘em a try.”

After a break of 10 months, Fanning brought Booyah back at that $20,000 level during Del Mar and was not displeased, even though his horse got tired. Now, whatever back class is still swimming round in Booyah’s system will get a chance to show itself over familiar ground on Sunday. If nothing else, his trainer can show him the way.