12/16/2003 12:00AM

Alive, racing, and a winner

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ALBANY, Calif. - Trainer Brian Pitnick isn't ashamed of the tears that flowed down his cheeks in the Golden Gate Fields winner's circle Saturday.

Very few who know the story of Graceful Stepper would have had a dry eye after her victory in an $8,000 maiden race.

She wasn't supposed to win a six-furlong race in wire-to-wire fashion in a faster time than $25,000 winners ran three races earlier. She probably wasn't supposed to be at the racetrack at all after having broken a leg during training in 2002.

She wasn't even supposed to be alive after suffering a fractured skull in 2001, an injury similar to what led to the death of Exogenous when she fell as she was about to go onto the track for the 2001 Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Pitnick bought the Phone Trick filly, who is out of the Affirmed mare Reminiscently, for $47,000 at the September 2000 yearling sale at Keeneland. He intended to sell her the following spring in the Barretts sale. She was entered in the sale, but didn't sell.

"The day before the sale, the Dow lost 500 points," Pitnick said.

In October of 2001, Graceful Stepper reared up and flipped over coming down the gap at Bay Meadows, and fractured her skull.

"She bled buckets," Pitnick said. "We worked five hours in the stall to stabilize her, and I rode in the van for two hours as she bled all over my shirt to get her to [the University of California Davis Center for Equine Health] to save her life."

She suffered from seizures and was also blind in one eye, but recovered enough to be cleared to race again.

Shortly after Graceful Stepper resumed training in 2002, she broke a leg and went to the sidelines again. She was finally able to make it to the races for the first time on

Oct. 18 at Bay Meadows. She ran fifth that day, but on Saturday, in her fourth start, she won by seven.

"She's probably got to win another 25 races to get my money back, but that's all right," Pitnick said. "I'm so proud of what she's done. That's why I was crying in the winner's circle."

* Thursday's Golden Gate feature, a $50,000 optional claimer at six furlongs, brings together Sempai, Con Quixote, and Constant Thunder - second, third, and fourth in a similar race in their last start - as well as Clear Creek Canyon and Private Aviator, both of whom have won two straight.