10/04/2001 12:00AM

Being neurotic isn't always bad


ARCADIA, Calif. - There was a quiet moment, halfway through "Chariots of Fire," when the 100-meter running coach played by Ian Holm dismissed the challenge of the laconic Scotsman in favor of his intense English lad.

"He's a gut runner. All heart, digs deep. But a short sprint is run on nerves. It's tailor-made for neurotics. You can push guts, bully them. But you can hone nerves."

Welcome to the nerve center of American racing. Six bonafide neurotics, honed to a fine edge, will uncoil at Santa Anita Park on Saturday in the Ancient Title Handicap.

The winner is not necessarily a cinch to take the Breeders' Cup Sprint three weeks hence. But only a fool would ignore the results, no matter how surprising.

Kona Gold carries 127 pounds as the defending Ancient Title champ, the same race he used last year to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint and the Eclipse Award. Few horses are more entertaining, and even fewer are able to produce their best efforts with such consistency.

He is also the latest in a line of superior West Coast sprinters to separate themselves from their contemporaries. These are uncompromising animals - world-class neurotics - and more competitive than we can ever measure.

The Ancient Title is named for the great California gelding who won major stakes at ages 2 through 8 and went through his career unbeaten in seven starts at seven furlongs. Even Kona Gold might blink if confronted by Ancient Title. But then, there is very little difference between the good sprinter and the greats. A step here, a shaved corner there, a flick of the head at the start of the race - every small move makes a large difference when going six furlongs in 68 seconds or so.

And there is more than one way to get it done. Runners like Kissin' George, Phone Trick, and Very Subtle appeared to be at full speed in a matter of yards Chinook Pass, America's sprint champ of 1983, was notoriously distracted in the gate, but fast enough to make up the difference.

Lit de Justice, champion of 1996, was that rare, swooping stretch-runner, defying the odds by catching horses who still had run on their minds.

Nearly 50 years ago, Imbros stood tall as the finest sprinter in the West. He was a son of Polynesian, from the same 1950 crop that produced Native Dancer. And while Native Dancer did most of his damage in the East at age 3, Imbros blossomed at 4 in California for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Molter.

Imbros ran 20 times in 1954. His season started on Jan. 2 with a victory in the seven-furlong Malibu Sequet Stakes and ended on Dec. 28 with a victory in the six-furlong Palos Verdes Handicap, both at Santa Anita In between he carried as much as 132 pounds and won at distances from three-quarters to 1 1/8 miles, He even managed to finish second in the Santa Anita Handicap.

In 1958, the chestnut Imbros was mated to the bay mare Fleet Diver, a daughter of Devil Diver. The result was Native Diver - nearly black, sickle-hocked, and thoroughly neurotic - who became a three-time winner of the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup.

That was nice, but Native Diver was even more entertaining when he sprinted.

Beginning in November 1961, with the six-furlong El Camino Handicap at Tanforan, through May 1967, when he won the seven-furlong Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park for the second time, Native Diver ran in 28 sprint stakes and won 14.

When he lost, it was usually his own pig-headed fault, since he never figured out what it meant to ration his speed. But in fairness, he had plenty of help from the handicappers. In some of those sprint losses he carried 132, 131, and 130 pounds.

Sledge was foaled the same year as Native Diver and roamed some of the same landscape, although there was no confusing the two under any circumstances. While Native Diver was lean and angry, winning route races out of sheer spite, Sledge was the size of a semi who emptied the tank after going six furlongs or so.

Since Native Diver ran 81 times and Sledge ran 91, it makes sense that they crossed paths more than a few times. Sledge held his own, most notably in 1963 Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar, when the big horse was first and Native Diver was sixth, and in the 1966 Premiere Handicap when Sledge edged Chiclero and Native Diver was seventh. In the 1964 Palos Verdes Handicap, on opening day at Santa Anita, Native Diver was first and Sledge was third while both carried topweight of 125.

"He looked like an elephant," recalled Eduardo Inda, who observed Sledge from a safe distance as an assistant then to Warren Stute. "I could hardly believe him the first time I saw him."

Inda hopes he can upset the Ancient Title with Forest Camp, a 4-year-old son of Deputy Minister who has never been able to fulfill the promise of his 2-year-old season, when he won the Del Mar Futurity.

"His work Wednesday was very, very good," said Inda, who began training the colt last year. "If he runs back to that work, he should be tough, because he's better now than any time since I've had him."

Now would be a good time to start.