11/12/2003 12:00AM

After fast start, Bray rebuilds


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - On Friday night, Hollywood Park will offer the first of two special evening programs, featuring a postrace concert by those refugees from the 1980's, Bow Wow Wow. For those who like their irony served cold, please note that Hollywood Park, a Churchill Downs Inc. track, does not allow dogs on its premises.

Simon Bray was a mere British lad of 13 when Bow Wow Wow hit England's New Wave rock scene in 1982 with their tub-thumping version of "I Want Candy," so you'd think he would be front and center Friday night at Hollywood's new Music Garden stage for a joyous reunion.

Afraid not. Bray, now a thoroughly indoctrinated Californian, is the proud holder of tickets for the Lakers-Pistons on Friday night, which will be a much better way to celebrate his victory on Hollywood's opening day with the 3-year-old colt Blue Afleet.

Nevertheless, Bray would just as soon not dwell on the fact that Blue Afleet's four-length score, for a $50,000 maiden claiming tag, marked the stable's first win in 3 1/2 months.

"I needed one of those global positioning systems to find the winner's circle," said Bray, his sense of humor admirably intact.

In Bray's defense, the starters haven't been exactly flowing out of his Hollywood Park-based barn. Blue Afleet was only his 71st runner of 2003, and any other trainer caught in such a lull might escape public notice.

Bray, however, created his own high expectations with a fast career break in June 1999 when he took over the California string of horses owned by Allen Paulson. For the next two years, Bray's name became associated with such major stakes winners as Astra and Startac.

After Paulson died in 2000, Bray converted his operation to a public stable with a core of Paulson runners. When the Paulson estate transferred its horses from Bray to Laura de Seroux in the summer of 2001, an unstarted 3-year-old filly named Azeri was among those leaving Bray's care.

If Bray has any regrets, he hides it well. He was one of Azeri's most loyal fans as she made history over two remarkable seasons, running up 11 straight victories at one point and reigning as 2002 Horse of the Year.

Still, he misses the thrill of handling the big horse. He earned his addiction, too, while learning the business from Robert Armstrong and Henry Cecil in England, and then through six golden years as an assistant to Bill Mott in New York. On any given day, Bray would arrive at the barn and be greeted by Escena, Geri, Ajina, Duda, Paradise Creek, Wekiva Springs, and the big horse, Cigar.

"I won't lie," Bray said. "This last bit has been pretty tough. If I'd started off my career like this, I probably wouldn't know any different. But being so fortunate to have all those horses at the beginning, it takes a little adjustment."

And when you stop winning, for any significant period of time, only one conclusion can be drawn.

"That's right," Bray said. "People think you've forgotten how to train. And amazingly, it happened all of a sudden, the day that Astra left the barn. But you're only as good as the tools you've got. That's the same for anyone - jockeys, trainers, football coaches."

Rebuilding takes time, and Bray is determined to see it through. In 2002 he had only 59 starters, but he won with 11, for an admirable 18 percent strike rate. His current stable of

26 horses represents a number of promising patrons, including West Coast stalwart Gregg Anderson (owner and breeder of Blue Afleet), Madeleine Paulson, Tony Ryan (of Ireland's Ryan Air), and Michael Bello, owner of top grass filly Megahertz.

In the meantime, it helps to have a life worth living outside the stable gates. Bray and his wife, Danielle (who is Bello's niece), celebrated their first wedding anniversary in September.

"If things are good at home, when things are going rough at the barn, that makes a big difference," Bray said. "And my home life, my personal life, my marriage - I love it.

"I met my wife when I was rolling, winning all those good races. So I think she sometimes feels a little sad for me, knowing I've had that success and seeing how down I can get. But she's very supportive, and there are times we don't even talk horses when I walk through the door."

There are only a couple of ways a young trainer can kick-start a career. One is getting the big horse, a headline champion. The other is running off an impressive string of winners and grabbing the attention of those potential patrons who worship winning percentage and check the daily standings.

"I think you really need to go on that streak," Bray said, "make it impossible for people not to notice, because out here in California, especially, you have to be visible."

Bray hopes Blue Afleet triggers one of those attention-getting runs. Then he would not have to answer questions like, When was the last time you won a race?

"It was July 28, at Del Mar," Bray replied. "A race won by Life's Pleasures, Cigar's half-sister. Funny how you remember those dates."

The trick is remembering them for the right reasons