06/25/2001 11:00PM

All they can do is wonder why


ELMONT, N.Y. - Bad horses, bad rides, bad karma. Whatever the case, a handful of high-profile trainers are having a bad time of it at Belmont Park this year.

Phil Johnson (0 for 32), Shug McGaughey (0 for 31), Joe Orseno (0 for 17), and Mike Hushion (1 for 26) are a combined 1 for 106 through the first seven weeks of the meet. Add John Kimmel's current 0-for-20 funk and horsemen and handicappers alike are left shaking their heads.

It was only a year ago that Johnson, a 75-year-old Hall of Famer, was enjoying a rebirth of sorts. Buoyed by a new client, the Lael Stable of Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Johnson won 15 races, including the Nassau County Stakes, at the 2000 Belmont spring-summer meet. Last winter, however, Johnson abruptly cut his ties with the Jacksons, citing philosophical differences.

Johnson admits he has a lot of bad horses in his barn and is in the process of weeding them out to make room for 2-year-olds that he has for longtime clients. Johnson said he has no regrets about not training for the Jacksons.

"Anytime I'm depressed and I think about firing them, it's the happiest moment of the day," said Johnson, who is 1 for 71 on the year. "I would have never made it with them."

While he may not be winning races, Johnson is winning a bigger battle. Johnson was diagnosed with prostate cancer this winter. On Monday, he had his final treatment and he said "the prognosis is 100 percent" for a recovery.

At last year's spring-summer Belmont meet, McGaughey was the third-leading trainer with 16 wins from 51 starters. This year, things are so bad that in an effort to discover the cause of his barn's slump he has had blood tests conducted on some of his horses. He also has had the feed, soil, and water in his barn tested. As of Tuesday, he said he has not received any test results.

"I think things are getting a little better," McGaughey said. "It looks like they're eating a little better. . . . There's something going on, it's just a matter of getting it nailed down, figuring out what it is, and eliminating and straightening out the problem."

McGaughey was encouraged by the way Traditionally and Cat Cay, two horses he plans to run this weekend, have trained in recent days. Traditionally is scheduled to run in Sunday's Suburban Handicap.

Orseno, who trains privately for Frank Stronach, nearly snapped out of his slump last Thursday when Krieger fell a nose short in a preliminary allowance race on turf. Orseno has also had some tough beats out of town, most recently with Milwaukee Brew finishing second in the $200,000 Baltimore Ravens Breeders' Cup Handicap at Pimlico.

"It's tough because you're still out here working just as hard," said Orseno, who last year was a finalist for an Eclipse Award, training juvenile champion Macho Uno and Preakness winner Red Bullet. "I take it real personally. I shouldn't let it bother me as much as it does, but it's just the way I am. The spirits in the barn are down a little bit. That's why it was real nice to see Macho and Bullet get off the van the other day."

Hushion may be having the most frustrating meet of them all. He has one win, four seconds, and nine thirds from 26 starters. The win came with Sketch of Rose, who won for a claiming tag of $22,500 on May 20.

"I just look at as these things go in cycles," Hushion said. "It's not the first time, and it won't be the last. Enough of them have run well enough that I'm going to think they have a relatively good chance the next time."