03/12/2004 12:00AM

Walking alongside brother's footsteps


ARCADIA, Calif. - Late Friday morning, as the muck trucks began to rumble through the Santa Anita backstretch, trainer Rafael Becerra was keeping a sharp eye on St Averil.

The colt needed only a minute more on the ring, but then a truck caught St Averil's eye, and his Saint Ballado blood began to rise.

"Get a lip chain," said Becerra, taking St Averil while his hotwalker complied. "That's better."

Peace was restored, St Averil chilled, and Becerra went back to the thousand other things on his mind. Still, a lone, melancholy thought refused to hide. Try as he might, Becerra could not shake it away, so he gave it a voice:

"Joe would be walking that horse right now."

Joe was his brother - Jose Asuncion Becerra by birth - the oldest of nine brothers and five sisters raised on a farm in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Joe Becerra was also Rafael's right-hand man, his alter-ego, and his lifelong, thick-and-thin friend.

Running St Averil on Sunday in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes without Joe by his side will be a strange feeling for Rafael. It was Joe who handled St Averil last fall at Hollywood Park while Rafael trained the main string at Santa Anita, and it was Joe who was going to travel with St Averil this spring in search of Triple Crown fortune.

Those plans were buried Friday afternoon with Joe Becerra, whose death last week rocked one of Southern California's most venerable racing clans. What was diagnosed as a massive cerebral stroke reduced Joe to a hopeless state, with no promise of recovery. After three heartbreaking days, with his father, daughters, brothers, and sisters at hand, Joe was released from artificial life support. He was 52.

Rafael took a rare day off work Thursday to be with family and friends for the funeral mass at St. Athanasius Catholic Church in Long Beach. Among those in attendance was Gary Jones, whose fortunes as a Thoroughbred trainer were deeply intertwined with the Becerras.

"If it wasn't for guys like Rafael and Joe, you would have never heard of me," said Jones, who trained champion Turkoman and scores of stakes winners before his retirement in 1995.

"My dad hired both brothers more than 30 years ago," Jones said, referring to his father, Farrell Jones. "They helped me get started, then Joe was a big help to Rafael when he went on his own.

"Joe had his demons, and Rafael would always be there when his brother needed help," Jones said. "But Joe had a great personality, always fun to be around. I just can't imagine the world without him."

Turkoman, champion older horse of 1986, spent most of the season campaigning in the East, far from his California home. While under the constant care of Joe, Turkoman won such races as the Widener Handicap, the Oaklawn Handicap, and the Marlboro Cup

"He was as good a groom as ever rubbed a horse," Jones said. "He was our stakes groom and did all the traveling as the guy you could depend on. If I was going to war for the money in any big race, I'd want Joe rubbing that horse."

Since last fall, it was St Averil who became the apple of Joe's eye. In only the second start of his career, St Averil finished second to Lion Heart in the Hollywood Futurity, then beat eventual Sham Stakes winner Master David to win the Santa Catalina Stakes in January.

When he takes his next step Sunday in the San Felipe, St Averil should get a legitimate test against champion Action This Day and such improving colts as Cheiron and Odds On. After that, it gets tougher, but Rafael thinks St Averil is the real thing.

"He was Joe's favorite horse," Rafael said. "He loved this horse. And this is a good horse, too. Everything he does tells me that, but we'll find out more on Sunday."

Until recently, good horses came hard to the Becerra brothers, but they plugged away, putting in the time. Joe swallowed his pride and acknowledged his younger brother as the boss, and Rafael bailed his brother out of occasional scrapes and promised better times ahead.

All the while, Rafael was developing a reputation for hands-on work and a solid win percentage, all of which paid off in early 2002, when he was hired by Sunland Park owner Stan Fulton to train his California stable. Eventually, the barn grew to include stakes winners Crackup, Roll Hennessy Roll, Rahy Dolly, and St Averil. Rafael's promise to his older brother was coming true. But now, Joe will not be around to share their hard-earned success.

"It's going to be pretty tough for me, I know," Rafael said. "Me and Joe thought the same about horses. I could think of something and he'd already be doing it and tell me not to worry. We were brothers, and what's better, we were friends."