09/06/2005 11:00PM

Abrupt end to a fine career

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Summer's almost gone, which is why Paddy Gallagher and his crew spent most of Tuesday loading up the odds and ends of their Del Mar stable for the journey back home to Santa Anita Park. Buckets, feed tubs, webbing, tack. Horses, too, led one by one into the waiting vans, onto the next stop in racing's relentless carousel.

The crew knew the drill. They'd done it all before, some of them dozens of times. Only this time it was different. This time it wasn't as much about the leaving as it was the horse they left behind.

Since December of 2002, over a seamless stretch of 33 months, Tucked Away was an institution in the Gallagher barn. She trained like a pro, answered the bell, and ran her heart out every time she was asked. Then she ate up, lay down, and awoke refreshed, ready to start all over again.

In a world of pampered specialists and hothouse prima donnas, Tucked Away was a throwback. She was a no-frills Thoroughbred who could run short or long, dirt or turf, in weather wet or dry. Tucked Away started 29 times - 27 of them for Gallagher and her owner, Nico Nierenberg - and brought back 25 checks, earning every penny of her $582,956.

Tucked Away was at her best on Aug. 7 when she won the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar, defeating a group that included Hollywood Story, Valentine Dancer, Star Parade, and Alphabet Kisses. For her next start, Gallagher circled the Sept. 4 Solana Beach Handicap, a race Tucked Away won in 2004. Her work on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 31, was meant to apply the final touches to her preparation.

And that was that. After all the races, all the miles of training, all the different tracks and conditions, Tucked Away took the terrible step that looms in the life of every Thoroughbred racehorse. At the end of one stride she was perfect, a vision of grace and balance. At the end of the next she had fractured the two small sesamoid bones that serve as fulcrums in the flex of the ankle joint. The fractures were described as "comminuted," which means they were shattered like ice cubes dropped on cement.

"It must have been some freakish bad step she took, because she was floating along in her work, just pricking her ears and floating," Gallagher recalled. "It's hard to believe, and harder to take."

"There's a reason I have my horses training with Paddy," Nierenberg said, "because this just doesn't happen often. He spent the week looking for any reason that it could have been his fault. I even second-guessed myself. I had a business meeting that morning, so I wasn't there for the work. Maybe if I had been there, it would have changed the timing of everything by half a second, and she wouldn't have taken that step. But you can't think that way. It's like a car crash."

Tucked Away was taken immediately to the San Luis Rey Equine Hospital of Drs. Joe Cannon and Barrie Grant. With Grant assisting, Cannon removed the particles of bone and fused the ankle joint.

"We thought she was going to be a great patient," Grant said. "A lot of them go nuts, thrash around the recovery room and do a Ruffian thing. She was very sensible. She finally got up, but then she didn't want to lie down."

For a horse to survive the trauma of sudden injury and then surgery, they must lie down, or in some cases be suspended from a sling, in order to take pressure off the feet. The fear is founder, a separation of the hoof wall from the inner lining, which can cause the coffin bone to lose support and literally drop, or sink. Few things are more painful for a horse.

"By Friday morning she was starting to dance on both hind toes, which is a sign she was beginning to founder," Grant continued. "Then she started to sink in both hind feet. On Saturday she just didn't want to move. We anesthetized her to lay her down, but she immediately tried to get up. We did an epidural on her for the pain."

The spiral had begun. Horses can be sedated only for so long, then they need to move in order to prevent severe colic and other circulatory complications. Tucked Away tried to do things her way, and it wasn't working.

"That's always the problem with a good horse," Grant said. "They always try so much harder. You think that all they need is a little break. But at that point they've already gone beyond the limits that most horses can tolerate."

Nierenberg visited a rallying Tucked Away on Saturday and was cautiously encouraged. But he realized how quickly her condition could turn. On Sunday afternoon she had worsened, with grim prospects in sight. Nierenberg sadly accepted the recommendation to euthanize Tucked Away.

"I understand what she went through, and you know this can happen, but I just wasn't ready for it," Nierenberg said. "Someday I'll be able to remember only the good things about her. Right now, it's really hard. I'm just glad I got to sort of say goodbye."