11/06/2003 1:00AM

A big heart dwarfs Sky Jack's bad knee

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Sky Jack has had three knee surgeries and two surgeries for colic. He has been patched up and returned every time because of the one part of his body that has never needed repair - his heart.

That desire will be on display again on Saturday, when Sky Jack leads the field in the $250,000 California Cup Classic, the highlight of the California Cup card at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting. He won the race back in 2000, when just a young pup of 4. Since then, medical crises have repeatedly interrupted his career. And yet, through the patient handling of his trainer, Doug O'Neill, the exacting care of his surgeon, Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, and the devotion of his owners, Rene and Margie Lambert, he has come back every time.

"We really care for him. He's been through so much," said Margie Lambert. "He's just a darling baby."

To Lambert, Sky Jack is part of her extended family. She and her husband bred Sky Jack, and his brilliance has made him a rallying point for a family that includes three sons, their wives, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Sky Jack, as well as the consistent turf sprinter F.J.'s Pace, are "so cute," Lambert said.

"We get very attached to our horses," said Kathy Lambert, one of Margie's daughters-in-law. "We're thrilled when Sky Jack runs. It's been like a roller coaster."

Now 7, Sky Jack, a gelding, has made just 18 starts. One of the reasons he has lasted this long, according to O'Neill, is that the Lamberts have never pushed Sky Jack.

"They're so patient and kind about it," O'Neill said. "We've assumed after each injury that that might be it for him. But Dr. McIlwraith, who did the knee surgery, has always been positive, and always led us to believe he could come back."

Sky Jack first rose to prominence when he won the 2000 Cal Cup Classic by 4 1/2 lengths. "I was amazed," O'Neill said. "I couldn't believe the way he pulled away from that group." Later that year, Sky Jack was an overpowering winner of Hollywood Park's Native Diver Handicap, earning a dazzling Beyer Speed Figure of 122.

He would not run again until Feb. 2002. Sky Jack underwent knee surgery, then twice during his recuperation had to be hospitalized for colic. But five months after returning to the races, he won the Hollywood Gold Cup, stretching his speed to 1 1/4 miles.

"He showed an amazing amount of guts to win that race, going head-and-head, and holding on," O'Neill said. "A mile and an eighth is about as much as you want to do with him. Considering the distance and the pace pressure, that might be the best of his many good races."

Sky Jack raced just once more last year, then again needed surgery on his right knee. He did not race for 10 months.

"Dr. McIlwraith did the surgery, and then later looked at the X-rays, gave us a time frame of how long he would be off, and gave us a schedule of exactly what to do to bring him back," Kathy Lambert said. "We followed that path."

Per usual, Sky Jack first recuperated at the Lambert's 44-acre Ren-Mar Thoroughbred Farm in Temecula, where farm manager Jeanne Davis oversaw his care. To begin serious training, he was sent to Gary Howard's Hideaway Farm "to get legged up," O'Neill said. Then he came to O'Neill at Hollywood Park, where the trainer is based year-round.

Sky Jack has raced three times this year. After tiring in a turf comeback race, he won a Hollywood Park allowance, then went to Emerald Downs and scored a front-running, 6 1/4-length victory in the Longacres Mile.

"It was pretty darn impressive," O'Neill said. "The track was like they always do that day. It was super quick and playing for speed. For him to ship up there and do what he did, it was incredible."

O'Neill has a delicate balancing act to perform with Sky Jack. He needs to get him fit to race, but does not want to make his exercise so strenuous as to risk aggravating an injury. Groom Noe Garcia hoses down Sky Jack's troublesome right knee with cold water every morning after training. At O'Neill's request, Garcia will alternate Sky Jack's daily poultice, some days applying one that is ice cold, other days using a warm sweat, to both guard against inflammation and promote circulation. "This horse would not be running without Noe," O'Neill said.

O'Neill said he also relies on the experience of exercise rider Juan Martinez, who has galloped Sky Jack since he first came to the racetrack. O'Neill said he prefers to give Sky Jack aggressive gallops in lieu of regular, timed workouts. "I think it helps him last longer," O'Neill said. "I can get him fit, if not more so, doing it this way rather than working him regularly."

Sky Jack, in fact, shows just two published works since the Aug. 24 Longacres Mile. He worked five furlongs on Oct. 13, and a slow three furlongs on Oct. 30. It is unorthodox, but necessary, O'Neill said.

"He goes around the main track at Hollywood in a two-minute lick," O'Neill said. "He gets enough out of his gallops that he doesn't need to work. The only reason I work him is because works are mandatory to run. Knock on wood, he's doing great."

When the day comes that Sky Jack can no longer race, he will be retired to Ren-Mar. The farm is a sanctuary for the Lamberts. Their primary business is leasing studios in Hollywood for television productions. "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal" are among the shows that have been taped there. "Monk" is currently taped there.

For pure drama, though, the scripts of those shows could not possibly match the courageous comebacks of Sky Jack.

"Everyone's just crazy about him," Margie Lambert said.