06/20/2001 12:00AM

Beautiful Pleasure's brush with death

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Following two authoritative victories at Belmont Park last spring, Beautiful Pleasure looked at the top of her game heading into a pair of Saratoga showdowns with Heritage of Gold.

After Beautiful Pleasure lost a big lead and the Go for Wand to Heritage of Gold on a wet track she was supposed to relish, many began to wonder if Beautiful Pleasure had lost a step. Actually, a few weeks earlier, she had nearly lost more than that.

For a 12-hour period last July, the connections of Beautiful Pleasure weren't sure if the mare was going to live, let alone race again. And while Beautiful Pleasure survived a scary bout with colic, she was not the same the remainder of the year despite winning the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Handicap against Heritage of Gold.

As Beautiful Pleasure, the 1999 champion mare, nears her 6-year-old return in Saturday's Grade 1 Hempstead Handicap at Belmont Park, her connections revealed the experience of one scary night last summer in Kentucky that almost brought an end to a brilliant career.

About two weeks after Beautiful Pleasure won last year's Hempstead, she was vanned to her Keeneland base in Lexington, Ky. On a very hot day, the van got tied up in traffic, making for a longer ride than usual.

When Beautiful Pleasure got home, she was anxious and would lie down and get up frequently. Some of her connections thought she was just tired. Donna Ward, the wife of trainer John and the person who has been Beautiful Pleasure's caretaker since day one, knew otherwise.

"She was laying with her legs straight out,'' Ward said. "I said this is wrong, get her up. She is not tired. She does not lie like that.''

After a few hours monitoring Beautiful Pleasure, the Wards decided to send her to the Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic, about 20 minutes from Keeneland.

"She colicked most of the day,'' Donna Ward said. "It would come and go in waves.''

At the clinic, Dr. Rolfe Embertson treated Beautiful Pleasure with powerful painkillers. Ward stayed in the stall with her, trying to get Beautiful Pleasure to relax. After a short while, Donna returned home, leaving John and the doctors to look out for the mare.

Without Donna Ward by her side, Beautiful Pleasure became agitated. The doctors worried her intestine could be twisting, which could turn fatal. They wanted to operate.

"Johnny called and said I think we're going to operate, she threw a real wing ding when you left,' '' Donna Ward recalled. "I said, 'If you can, give me a chance to get back and assess the situation. Is she really hurting or is she mad?' So when I got back I said to Dr. Embertson, 'What is it that you would like for me to do?' He said, 'If you can, get her to relax the gut so she has a bowel movement.' ''

By the time Ward returned, it was close to 3 in the morning. With her husband, Embertson, and an eight-member surgical team looking on, Donna Ward was humming and singing to Beautiful Pleasure.

"I'm sure Dr. Embertson was saying 'Oh my God, please don't let me make a mistake, if it's wrong it could be fatal,' '' Ward said. "Finally, she relaxed enough where she had a bowel movement. Later that morning, they ran all the bloods on her and I took her home.''

Although Donna Ward trained Beautiful Pleasure conservatively after that, she thought the mare was ready to run in the Go for Wand. Heavy rains turned the track into a sea of slop and by race time it had dried out to sticky mud. Beautiful Pleasure opened a seven-length lead only to be run down by Heritage of Gold.

"She was probably a little bit short especially to pull along in that mud that day in the Go for Wand,'' Ward said. "I don't want it to sound like an excuse, it's not an excuse, but her health was more important than winning a race.''

In addition to her impaction, Beautiful Pleasure pulled a muscle in her hip that plagued her the rest of the year. Beautiful Pleasure was defeated by Riboletta in the Beldame and then finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Ward said Beautiful Pleasure demonstrated this winter the desire to race again, which is why she was put back in training. Although it remains to be seen if Beautiful Pleasure will return to her championship form of 1999, she appears to be the healthiest she has been in a year.

Now that's scary.