03/15/2004 1:00AM

Bad luck leaves trail of red

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ARCADIA, Calif. - When you can find a horse by following the trail of blood he has left in the sand, you know something bad has happened.

The trickle of red leading down the backstretch path led past the Ted West stable on the left, then veered right past Dean Greenman's shed row to Barn 26, where trainer Simon Bray was standing beside the 3-year-old colt Laditude.

Sporting dirty rundowns and a bay coat streaked with sweat, Laditude looked like a horse who had just been through a tough race. Except for his right front foot. Laditude's right front foot was something out of another world - a bullfight, maybe, or Pickett's charge.

Bray stared at the foot in disbelief. Blood oozed from a deep gash just above the outside of the hoof wall. The hoof itself was split and peeled back like dry wood. A chunk of flesh the size of a thumb dangled from a piece of skin. In the timid parlance of the track, Laditude had "grabbed a quarter." But that hardly did it justice. "Stepped in a bear trap" was more like it.

"I have never, ever seen anything like this," said the 34-year-old Bray, who served his apprenticeship with Bill Mott. "And the worst is yet to come. There will be infection to worry about, and founder. Even if he gets through that, there's no way to know if he'll even be able to grow a hoof again."

Barely a half-hour earlier, Laditude had led the field to the paddock for Sunday's $250,000 San Felipe Stakes, coat gleaming, eyes bright, and oblivious to the fact that he was the longest shot in the field of nine ambitious 3-year-olds.

"At least he'll win the beauty contest," Bray said with a proud smile.

As a former Panamanian hotshot who had yet to make a U.S. impression, Laditude earned his 60-1 odds. But he did not deserve his fate. After balking to load, he stood well in the gate for Mike Smith, then broke with such a lunge that he stumbled, reached up awkwardly with his right hind foot, and butchered his right fore.

Smith tumbled off to the left and bounced immediately to his feet as the field disappeared into the first turn. Laditude, now about 113 pounds lighter, split a wall of horses entering the turn and went right for the lead as if nothing were amiss. He continued on the pace to the far turn, then bore out, blew the bend, and gave up the chase. An outrider finally ran him down in front of the stands, preventing further havoc.

Given the unpredictable nature of a loose horse in mix, it can be argued that the results of the San Felipe should be tossed and the page turned. Certainly, there were horses affected in the scramble - Action This Day, second choice in the betting, ended up with a cut on his right hind ankle - but the two colts who took the worst of the wild first turn ended up first and second at the end of the race. Maybe it was a keeper after all.

In fact, it was Stan Fulton, owner of favored St Averil, who called it on the nose in the walking ring even before the excitement started.

"That's the one I'm worried about," Fulton said, nodding toward the ghost gray Preachinat-thebar, a son of Silver Charm from the Bob Baffert barn. "Last time he gave us three pounds and we beat him three lengths. Today we give him six pounds. That can't be good for us."

It almost didn't matter. Preachinatthebar was forced wide by the loose horse and St Averil even wider, but by the time they hit the top of the stretch there were no excuses available. Preachinatthebar was clear and St Averil was grinding away, getting to the gray with every step except the very last. The margin was a nose.

Those who ascribe to the theory of weight spread will give St Averil good marks for another game effort. He emerged from the San Felipe as the most consistent of the West Coast 3-year-olds racing beyond a mile, although Lion Heart still looms large in spite of his loss to the upstart Imperialism in the one-mile San Rafael. Those three will help make the Santa Anita Derby on April 3 required attendance for serious fans.

Mike Pegram, the owner and breeder of Preachinatthebar, is a very serious fan, a tireless promoter of the sport . . . and a mysterious no-show for the San Felipe.

"When I looked at this weekend, I thought the race was on Saturday," Pegram said late Sunday afternoon from an undisclosed meeting place in the Mexican resort of Cabo San Lucas. "By the time I figured it out, it was too late. I had to be here."

No hard feelings, Mike. Business is business. At least he was able to witness the San Felipe at a place where parimutuel wagers were accepted. Or, as Pegram put it:

"They ran out of five dollar bills at the Caliente Sports Book."

Pegram won the 1998 Derby with Real Quiet, and, as an original Baffert backer, he was very much a part of the 1997 party when Silver Charm won for Bob and Beverly Lewis.

"It's a long way from here to the Derby," Pegram said. "But wouldn't it be something if Silver Charm got us there again."