12/23/2003 12:00AM

Whole lotta shakin' goin' on


ARCADIA, Calif. - Once again, California has survived another of its periodic attempts to discourage westward migration. Easterners awoke Tuesday morning to a freezing December day, took note of the earthquake news from California's central coast, and decided they would rather roll the dice with tornados, hurricanes, and killer frosts.

Good decision. At least you can see those coming. Earthquakes are nature's way of jumping out of a closet and saying, "Boo!" They claim their victims with indiscriminate disregard.

The 1991 Sierra Madre earthquake, for instance, was a magnitude 5.8 centered just a few miles northeast of Santa Anita Park. It was strong enough to do $40 million worth of property damage and cause more than 100 injuries, but only one person was killed. Her name was Juli Nickoley, and she was crushed beneath a beam that fell from the upper reaches of the Santa Anita grandstand while she watched morning workouts with her fiance, trainer Art Lerille.

At one time or another, just about everyone who lives and works in the area around the historic little central coast town of Paso Robles has found themselves at one of the shops in the Mastagni Building at a quarter past 11 on a Monday morning. On this particular Monday, two women were killed when the building collapsed.

"It's just 15 minutes from us," said Art Mercado, manager of Alex Trebek's Creston Farm. "I get my morning bagel at the bread shop there every day."

That would be House of Bread, which ended up in the same pile of rubble with shops like the Rose in the Woods boutique, Pan Jewelers, and the 111-year-old clock tower that served as the central landmark of the town of 27,000.

Creston is one of a handful of Thoroughbred farms within a few miles of Paso Robles. Miraculously, they appeared to have escaped major damage. Stephen Sahadi, whose family owns Cardiff Stud Farm, was in his office when the quake hit.

"The horses were all pretty quiet," Sahadi said. "One of our guys told me that in one big pasture, there was a group of maybe 16 mares - all of them about four months away from foaling - who suddenly for some reason just took off running. Shortly after that the earthquake hit.

"As for structures, we were okay - except for my house," Sahadi added. "It's about a hundred yards from the office, but it sits on a hill, so I don't know if that had anything to do with it. But absolutely everything fell out of cabinets and cases, off the countertops. Books and glass everywhere."

The Cardiff Stud trophy case includes mementos won by such noted runners as The Carpenter, King Pellinore, and Caucasus. They all survived the tumble, except for one.

"A glass trophy won by Spinelessjellyfish cracked in two," Sahadi said, referring to Cardiff's turf horse, soon to be 8. "I guess he'll have to go out and do it again."

Sue Hubbard's farm is about five miles northeast of Paso Robles, on a mesa overlooking the Salinas River. At 11:15 Monday morning, she was tending horses in a pasture. After that, her daily routine would have taken her into town, to her bank next door to the Mastragni Building.

"It was an interesting phenomenon to watch," Hubbard said. "I have some weanling fillies in for halter-breaking and handling. They started to run in a group, then all of a sudden they turned in on themselves and planted their feet. For about an hour after that they went back to grazing, but every few minutes they'd look up, feeling little trembles from aftershocks."

Hubbard's farm sustained no significant damage, although, according to Hubbard, the stallion Latin American won't soon forget the experience.

"When the quake hit he was pacing back and forth in his paddock, looking for his mares," Hubbard said. "It was bizarre. You think about horse instinct, and what those 50 million years of evolution have taught them. He was truly worried. Once the mares drifted over where he could see the bulk of them, he settled down."

Back at Creston, Art Mercado was finishing up his post-quake farm inspection. The verdict was one broken water line and some minor damage to staff quarters. A couple of trophies won by Reba's Gold spilled out of the office trophy case.

"There was a big jolt, then it just rolled for 30 seconds or so," Mercado said. "Got me kind of rubber legged. I'm convinced the horses sensed it coming on. Looking out the window to the pasture where the mares were, they were just running around, trying to get their balance."

The Creston horses emerged from the experience unscathed, so it was back to work on Tuesday, with the early training of soon-to-be- 2-year-olds in full swing.

"We're right in the middle of blowin' and goin'," Mercado said. "Got 25 broke already. Maybe we'll change our ads: As an extra feature, our horses are now broke to earthquakes, and we won't charge you anything for it."