10/21/2008 12:00AM

Back in the saddle and looking ahead


ARCADIA, Calif. - Carla Gaines could not finish the handwritten letter from a heartbroken fan who had fallen in love with the best filly Gaines has trained.

The letter started, "I'm sure Nashoba's Key was rooting for Zenyatta from heaven the other day . . . ."

Gaines choked up. "Oh my god, I just started crying, I couldn't see through the tears to read . . . I still haven't read the whole letter yet. Every time I start reading it, I cry."

One year ago, Nashoba's Key was 7 for 7 going into the Breeder's Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and one of the most popular California-based horses in training.

"Nashoba had a fan base - I had no idea how large it was," owner-breeder Warren Williamson said.

Nashoba's Key ran fourth in the Breeders' Cup, lost in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf in January, then returned to form in March by crushing the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita. And then she was gone.

On May 28 at Hollywood Park, the 4-year-old filly fractured a hind leg in her stall and was euthanized, almost on the spot. The sympathy cards and letters that poured in to Gaines and Williamson keep coming, along with a flood of emotions.

Gaines admits "I still can't handle it very well," and this week at Santa Anita she fought back tears recounting an emotional 2008 that was marred by deaths of her older brother and best horse, only days apart.

"How much can a girl handle?" Williamson said. But he already knows. Gaines has trained Williamson horses for 18 years - "She cares for them like they are her children," he said - and Friday at Santa Anita they start longshot Tiz Elemental in the BC Filly and Mare Sprint.

"I don't know how many digits they'll put behind the 2 or the 3, but it'll be a price," Williamson said. "You don't have the same monkey on your back at 30-1 that you have at 3-2."

Yet the cheerful Gaines still carries an emotional load that began when her brother Martin, 58, committed suicide in May. Gaines spent a week with her family in Alabama before returning home to Pasadena with a heavy heart.

"I remember wanting to go see [Nashoba's Key]," she said. "We had freshened her up, and she was starting her gallops. Our focus was for this coming Breeders' Cup.

"She comes out of the stall and was just beautiful. She'd put on a bunch of weight, her coat was all shiny, she galloped beautifully, and I remember feeling almost guilty because she made me feel so good.

I'll never forget - it was like, I have something to live for, because I was devastated by my brother's death. And the next morning at 5:30 she was dead. I was like, 'What have I done wrong? What did I do to deserve this?' "

Gaines went into a tailspin, and at one point in July she won with just 2 of 42 starters.

"A couple times at Hollywood Park, I had horses running and I didn't want to go," she said. "I remember sitting there watching on TV like I wasn't even in the race. I think my horses suffered."

"She was grieving," Williamson said. "It wasn't just Carla, it was the whole barn. They get into a sort of rhythm, and it busted the rhythm up. I felt bad for myself, but I felt worse for Carla because of what she had gone through."

Tiz Elemental ran the worst sprint of her career during the funk, finishing fifth in the Grade 2 A Gleam on June 28. Gaines does not know exactly when or how things improved, but in summer they did. She won a race the second day of the Del Mar meet, finished the meet 6 for 29, and Tiz Elemental missed by only a nose in the Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo.

"I'm lucky that I'm busy - I can't think about things," Gaines said. Not with 40 horses including Tiz Elemental, comeback stakes horses Lucky J.H., Foxysox and Tiz a Blend, and Nashoba's Excess, a half-sister to Nashoba's Key.

"You get excited having her sibling, but you think, how can you ever have another one like her? She was once in a lifetime," Gaines said.

Williamson would have loved for Nashoba's Key to face a filly like Zenyatta on Friday in the Ladies' Classic.

"It's doubly tragic, because the Mosses have Zenyatta this year," he said. "You learn to live with it. I'm not sure you ever get over it."

The longshot Tiz Elemental will not embarrass herself Friday, even if she is a double-digit price against the likes of Indian Blessing and Ventura.

Gaines, meanwhile, looks forward to turning the calendar page. The winter racing season will not arrive a day too soon.

"I've been through the best and the worst year of my life," she said. "Santa Anita is going to be strong for us."