03/06/2003 1:00AM

Veteran suddenly becomes rookie

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Few jockeys were as accomplished in their careers as Chris McCarron, who won 7,141 races, the Kentucky Derby in 1987 and 1994, and had mounts who earned in excess of $264 million.

But even the Hall of Fame jockey will admit the experience gained from his career has not prepared him for his upcoming career switch, from retired jockey to the general manager at Santa Anita.

Magna Entertainment, Santa Anita's parent company, announced McCarron's appointment on Wednesday. He will take the position on March 31.

"I know I don't have any experience in management, but I have experience in other facets of racing," he said. "I think I can bring to the table 28 years of experience of seeing lots of sides of the game.

"There will be a learning period."

McCarron has been active since his retirement from riding last June. He spent the second half of 2002 working as a consultant on the upcoming movie "Seabiscuit," based on the book.

In early January, after a majority of the work on the film was completed, McCarron traveled to south Florida to meet with Magna Entertainment officials.

"I was impressed with the people that are working for Magna, and I'm impressed with the long-range plans for the sport," he said. "I want to be a part of that. I think Magna has the capability of creating a renaissance in this sport. It will take some time to do that, but they have some plans."

While McCarron did not divulge specifics, he said one aspect of racing in which he would like to focus is increasing ontrack attendance. Since Magna acquired Santa Anita in late 1998, the track has had difficulty maintaining ontrack attendance figures. The attendance for the Santa Anita Handicap program last Saturday - a race that McCarron won three times - was 25,160, the lowest in the 66-year history of the race.

"That's one of the biggest concerns, that the ontrack live product is not being given enough attention," McCarron said.

McCarron is not replacing a member of Santa Anita's management. Track president Jack Liebau currently also holds the title of general manager.

Tough Game in stakes debut

Tough Game, who was considered for the Santa Anita and San Carlos handicaps last weekend, makes his stakes debut in the $75,000 Tokyo City Handicap in Saturday's ninth race.

Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Tokyo City has drawn 10 entrants. Tough Game will need to be at his best.

The field includes Truly a Judge, the winner of the Claiming Crown Jewel last August at Philadelphia Park; Gondolieri, a multiple stakes winner from Chile who is making his U.S. debut; Western Pride, who won the 2002 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes; and Night Patrol, the winner of the 2002 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile on turf.

Western Pride was second in the 2002 Santa Anita Handicap, his most recent appearance in this country. Last spring, he finished ninth in the Dubai World Cup and 11th in the Singapore Airlines International Cup in Singapore last May.

The 5-year-old Western Pride was scratched from the $400,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on March 1.

Tough Game is trained by Bob Baffert and will be ridden by Jerry Bailey. On Feb. 9, Bailey, currently based at Gulfstream Park, rode Tough Game for the first time in a first-condition allowance race over 1 1/8 miles on dirt. On that day, Bailey was at Santa Anita to ride Composure to victory in the Las Virgenes Stakes. He rides the same filly in Saturday's fourth race, the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks.

Layoff ends for Midas Eyes

Midas Eyes, a well-regarded 3-year-old trained by Bobby Frankel, makes his first start since August in a $52,000 optional claimer on the hillside turf course in Saturday's second race.

Nominated to the Triple Crown, Midas Eyes was purchased privately by Edmund Gann last year, following an eight-length victory in a maiden race over 5 1/2 furlongs at Calder last summer.

By Touch Gold, the colt has had fast works at Hollywood Park in recent weeks.

Saturday's optional claimer is run over about 6 1/2 furlongs on turf and the field includes three English imports - Tangled Up in Blue, Moudoudh, and Monsieur Boulanger, none of whom was competitive in stakes overseas.

From the domestic team, Nation Wide News could offer a challenge. He won a maiden race by five lengths on Dec. 26, and finished second and fifth in allowance races around two turns in January and February. This race will be his first start on turf.

Work crew out for Santa Margarita

Three of the six probables for Sunday's $300,000 Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap for fillies and mares had workouts on Thursday.

Got Koko, who swept the three-race La Canada series earlier at this meeting, worked three furlongs in 37.40 seconds.

Trainer Ron McAnally will have two starters - Affluent and Printemps. Affluent, the winner of the Santa Monica Handicap on Jan. 25, went five furlongs in 1:03.20. She will be ridden by Julie Krone.

Printemps worked five furlongs in 1:02. David Flores has the mount. He was named on Thursday as a replacement for Laffit Pincay Jr., who is injured.

The other starters are Bella Bellucci, Sightseek, and Starrer.

Valenzuela in clear lead

The neck injury that has forced Laffit Pincay to the sidelines for an indefinite period has essentially ended the race for the jockey title at the Santa Anita meeting.

Through Wednesday, Patrick Valenzuela led the standings with 63 winners, 11 more than Pincay and well clear of Alex Solis (43) and David Flores (42).

Valenzuela, 40, won two riding titles last year - the Hollywood Park spring-summer and Del Mar meetings. If he wins the title at the current meeting, it will be his first at a Santa Anita winter-spring meeting. In a career marred by suspensions for substance abuse problems, Valenzuela has finished in the first five on 10 occasions since 1979-80.