05/16/2007 12:00AM

This year, Californians will watch


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - California's finest 3-year-olds didn't exactly cover themselves in glory at this year's Kentucky Derby. Cluttered the field is more like it.

Yes, Tiago did win the gallop-out, but at the only finish line that counted, he was seventh, beaten 10 lengths by Street Sense, while ahead of fellow West Coast refugees Great Hunter (13th), Liquidity (14th), Bwana Bull (15th), and Stormello (19th). Enjoy those $50,000 saddle towels.

No hard feelings, though. Everyone gets an A for effort. Descending into the turbulent stew of the Kentucky Derby takes a certain amount of fortitude, and a race like the Derby will never happen to those brave 20 ever again.

So now it's back to real horse racing - that's why they offer a Preakness - and a chance to erase the grim events of Cinco de Mayo in Louisville. Besides, California-trained horses love the Preakness. There should have been a plane leaving LAX earlier this week, bound for Baltimore, and chock full of Preakness hopefuls. Except for the fact that there wasn't. This year's Preakness will have absolutely zero participation from any 3-year-old based in California.

That's too bad, because Californians have an ongoing love affair with the Preakness. The history of the Preakness is replete with formidable West Coast involvement, beginning seriously on May 22, 1954, when the 79th running of the Preakness (contested three weeks after the Derby, by the way), drew a field that included Derby runner-up Hasty Road and Derby favorite Correlation, trained out of California by Noble Threewitt.

It was grand drama, with Johnny Adams nursing Hasty Road along on the lead and Bill Shoemaker attacking with Correlation from the top of the stretch to the wire. Hasty Road won by a neck, and a case could have been made for an objection. But neither Threewitt nor Shoemaker were inclined to play the sore loser, so they took their lumps and moved on.

In 1963, Candy Spots was shaping up as the best California-bred 3-year-old since Swaps, winner of the Derby in 1955. This was no surprise, since Candy Spots was spawned by the same Rex Ellsworth operation that produced Swaps, not to mention Prove It, Olden Times, and Terrang. Candy Spots had the star power, though, with his flashy record of wins in the Santa Anita and Florida derbies, as well as his bright chestnut coat splattered here and there with dollops of white, as if someone had gotten careless with the Clorox.

Favored in the Derby, Candy Spots was stopped more often than a teenager driving his daddy's Corvette. With a clean trip at Pimlico, the Ellsworth colt became the first Cal-bred to win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown with a 3 1/2-length romp over Derby winner Chateaugay.

California-based horsemen also can lay claim to such Preakness winners as Majestic Prince in 1969, Snow Chief in 1986, and Sunday Silence in 1989, not to mention five from the California stable of D. Wayne Lukas (Codex, Tank's Prospect, Tabasco Cat, Timber Country, and Charismatic), three from Bob Baffert (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Point Given), and two from Jack Van Berg (Gate Dancer and Alysheba). Sorry, but Baffert's War Emblem does not count - he never set foot in Arcadia until after the Belmont.

It was in 1959, however, that Royal Orbit planted the flag of California racing on Old Hilltop for the first time, with help from trainer Reggie Cornell and jockey Bill Harmatz.

The field was deep with quality - Sword Dancer ran second, Dunce was third, and First Landing finished ninth as the 8-5 favorite. To that point, Royal Orbit could only really brag about finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby, the California Derby, and the Del Mar Futurity. In the Kentucky Derby, he finished fourth to Tomy Lee.

"He actually should have won the Derby," said Harmatz, now 76 and a successful San Diego County businessman. "We were in the number 17 post, and Silver Spoon kept me out in the middle of the racetrack on both turns. I only got beat four lengths for all of it.

"Royal Orbit was the kind of horse you couldn't disturb," Harmatz went on. "You had to keep him away from horses. We were dead last going into the first turn of the Preakness and ended up winning by four lengths. When I took ahold of him down the backstretch that day, he started going by horses like it was nothing. I didn't want to move that soon, but Reggie told me to let him do his own thing."

Royal Orbit was lucky to survive the subsequent Belmont Stakes, when Peter Pan Stakes winner Black Hills broke down in front of him on the home turn.

"I jumped him, my horse stumbled, but luckily I didn't fall off," Harmatz said. "Royal Orbit ended up bowing a tendon, when he should have just galloped."

A case can be made. Belmont winner Sword Dancer was no match for Royal Orbit in the Preakness.

"Just riding Royal Orbit was a thrill," Harmatz said. "Trouble is, I really didn't appreciate all those memories when I was going through them. Back in those days you thought of it as a job, more or less. Now I look back and think, 'You little dummy. How sweet it was, and you didn't even know it.' "