08/02/2001 12:00AM

Wrong calls make tough game even harder

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DEL MAR, Calif. - While handicappers are accustomed to a share of tough beats, trouble usually is confined to the racetrack. Not so this meet, where difficult trips have been replaced by difficult calls. From their booth on the sixth floor of the grandstand, track stewards have breathed new life into the phrase "please hold all tickets."

Already, two winners have been disqualified for interference that scarcely affected the outcome, if at all. Those disqualifications were followed on Wednesday by yet another incident: a significant change that went unannounced until 15 minutes to post for race 3. The horse - a first-time gelding - won and paid $52.

Del Mar stewards Ingrid Fermin, David Samuel, and George Slender do a good job, most of the time. But for at least three races, their calls have been a source of frustration.

Gate crasher

Trainer Mark Glatt arrived at Del Mar with a barnful of fresh horses. "I thought I was going to have a good meet," he said. "I'm trying to make a name for myself."

Kent Desormeaux arrived hungry to re-establish himself in California after riding in Japan for two months. They teamed July 26 in race 8 on class-dropper Mangusta.

Martin Pedroza had ridden Mangusta in his previous start, and knew the horse's tendency to duck inward. He warned Desormeaux and suggested that he keep his stick in his left hand leaving the gate.

Desormeaux's stick was in his right hand when the gates opened, and Mangusta took a predictable left-hand turn. He smacked into 45-1 longshot Cracker Jack, ridden by Goncalino Almeida. Cracker Jack was squeezed back sharply while Mangusta overcame his self-caused trouble, worked his way into contention, and was up to win by a length.

Before the field galloped out, Almeida informed the outrider (in radio contact with stewards) that he was claiming foul against Desormeaux. That Almeida had finished sixth was not a primary concern. "I claimed foul because [Desormeaux] came over too strong." Almeida said. "If I didn't have the problem, I maybe could have finished third."

Desormeaux could hardly believe Almeida had claimed foul, citing a jockey's unwritten rule. "It's code in the room . . . if you don't finish one-two-three, you don't claim," Desormeaux said. "You might go looking for the jock after the race, but you don't claim."

When stewards received word of Almeida's claim, Slender said, "we were already in the process of putting up [an inquiry]." Because Almeida's horse missed fifth place - worth $420 to the owner - by a nose, stewards said they felt they had no choice but to take down the winner for causing interference at the break. Mangusta - unquestionably the best horse in the race at 9-2 - was placed sixth. Cracker Jack, the 45-1 longshot, was moved from sixth to fifth.

The trainer of Mangusta stood helpless and infuriated. Said Glatt: "In California, speed is the name of the of the game. These jocks are trying to establish position. . . . If you're going to put the gate under the microscope in every single sprint, you could take a horse down nine times out of 10."

Drifting out

Desormeaux was also a principal in the second disqualification. This time he was the fortunate recipient riding pacesetter Rebuild Trust in race 2 on July 30.

Rebuild Trust had set a fast pace in the 1 1/16-mile race and was tired in the stretch. Lunar Surprise had spent most of the race chasing the pacesetter and was tired. Meanwhile, odds-on favorite Revillew Slew was benefiting from a stalking trip under Laffit Pincay Jr. As she launched her rally, Lunar Surprise found renewed energy and tried to run with her. At that point, front-runner Rebuild Trust drifted out. Revillew Slew came in slightly.

Lunar Surprise's running path was disappearing, and jockey Jose Valdivia snatched her up. She lost momentum and finished fourth. The inquiry sign lit immediately, and Rebuild Trust figured to be disqualified from second and placed fourth. Race winner Revillew Slew figured to stay up. Valdivia told stewards that Pincay's mount did not cause the trouble; he said it was Desormeaux's mount, Rebuild Trust, who caused him to check.

Stewards saw different. They ruled that Rebuild Trust was "clear" when she drifted out. "If they're clear, they can go to any part of the track they want," Slender said. Revillew Slew, the odds-on favorite, was taken down for drifting in slightly.

Whether or not the stewards made a mistake, the California Horse Racing Board has received abundant negative feedback on this decision. The board's stewards committee will review the ruling, but there is no recourse for owners or bettors.

Information gap

A horse who is sidelined for a year must be considered a different animal upon his return, and there can be no greater change administered than the ultimate equipment change - castration.

A stud colt who has been gelded will trim down and focus his attention on racing. Most of time, he will improve. Knowledge of when a horse is making his first start as a gelding is more important than medication or blinkers.

Gold Fevers Gift had been off 15 months when trainer Caeser Dominguez brought him back Wednesday in race 3. When Gold Fevers Gift arrived at the receiving barn, the horse identifier recognized the colt was actually a gelding and informed the stewards. Track announcer Trevor Denman announced the change 15 minutes before post.

By then, the first pick three had closed with more than $100,000 in the pool. The second daily double had closed, with more than $20,000 in the pool. And, a large portion of pick six money already had filtered in, on a carryover day when the pool exceeded $700,000.

Gold Fevers Gift won by 2 1/2 lengths at 25-1, the second winner on the card for Dominguez. Gold Fevers Gift had been gelded soon after his debut, and had been in and out of training three times since. Dominguez neglected to note the change on the entry card, admitting: "I should have have reported it when I entered him."

There is no penalty for failing to report a first-time gelding, but stewards said they would remind Dominguez of his responsibility.