09/26/2001 11:00PM

Big Jag deserved a better fate

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In a perfect world, Big Jag would be throwing his 1,400 pounds around the Tim Pinfield barn right now, playful as a baby rhino, eating his junk food, and preparing for a run in next week's Ancient Title Handicap, or the Cal Cup Sprint, or maybe even another try in the Breeders' Cup Sprint a month from now in New York.

Of course, this never was a perfect world. And Big Jag is dead, far from home, a victim of post-operative complications that ended in laminitis.

There are worse ways for a horse to die. Fortunately, none of them come to mind. Big Jag's laminitis, also called founder, had become irreversible, and so he was mercifully euthanized.

This is done to horses all the time, and for any number of humane reasons.

But founder is a particularly grim condition. You wouldn't wish founder on your worst enemy. Or maybe you would.

Dr. Ric Redden, the noted equine foot specialist, authored a recent two-part article on laminitis in The Blood-Horse Magazine. It is good and necessary reading. The racing layman also can turn to chapter nine of the "Illustrated Atlas of Clinical Equine Anatomy and Common Disorders of the Horse - Volume One," by Ronald J. Riegel, D.V.M., and Susan E. Hakola, B.S., R.N., C.M.I.

"Even with all the advanced technology today, some aspects of laminitis still remain a mystery," the chapter begins.

Part of the mystery can be blamed on the miracle of the Thoroughbred foot, which makes human fingertips look like tinker toys.

The lower-most bone of the leg - called the third or distal phalanx - is connected to the tough interior tissue of the hoof wall by 60,000 microscopic cables. These cables distribute the impact when all of a horse's weight comes down on a single foot. The cables make up the laminae.

There are four progressively severe phases to laminitis, and not all cases need to end badly. But when they do, the connection between the laminae and the hoof wall is weakened, the distal phalanx begins to rotate and tip downward under the weight of the animal, and the sole of the foot begins to give way. Imagine your ankle dropping right through your heel to the ground.

The pain is indescribable, and even the pain becomes part of the problem. With pain comes vasoconstriction, which means more pressure and reduced healthy blood flow, which results in more and more corrupted laminae and accelerated drop of the bone.

That is what was happening to Big Jag, half a world away from his California home at a veterinary hospital in Dubai. By Monday, Big Jag's suffering had reached a point of no return.

"Even 10 days ago there was still some hope," said Pinfield, who stayed in constant touch with the clinic in Dubai. "He was still eating his donut and having his Pepsi every day. There was some rotation, but they got that under control. Then it all turned, and he went downhill pretty fast."

He deserved a better fate. Big Jag was one of the most entertaining animals to grace the racing stage in recent memory. As a grandson of both Affirmed and Alydar, he was born to be competitive. His size alone was a source of breathless inspiration. Big Jag could have looked Forego in the eye, or stood nose to nose with Phar Lap. Alex Solis still recalls the oohs and ahhs of the Nad al Sheba gate crew as they beheld Big Jag on that magical night in Dubai, wondering if he would fit in the starting stall.

That was on March 25, 2000, when Big Jag staked a claim as the fastest horse in the world by running off with the $1 million Golden Shaheen for owner Julius Zolezzi and his family. Prior to that he had beaten Kona Gold twice, traveled to Hong Kong, and sprinted to more than a million dollars in purses, all of which was accomplished on surgically repaired knees that needed 19

months to mend before he could race again at the age of 5.

Had he called it a career after winning in Dubai, at the ripe old age of 9, no one could have asked for more. A dozen wins and $1.8 million put him among the most accomplished sprinters of his era. And yet, Big Jag continued to travel far and wide - to New York for the Met Mile, to Hong Kong for a second time, and then, last March, back to Dubai to defend his title in the Golden Shaheen. That's when he shattered the sesamoids in his left foreleg while training for the race.

Laminitis is always a risk when a racehorse has gone through the trauma of a serious, full-speed injury. The weight displaced by the damaged limb puts a stress on the healthy feet during recovery. A little pulse quickly become four-alarm founder.

There were times, during the early summer, when Pinfield thought Big Jag might have recovered enough to bring him home, or at least as far as Pinfield's native England, where he could have lived out his life as a noble pensioner.

But then, about two months ago, the first signs of laminitis gave warning of what was to come. Big Jag was fighting abscesses in all four feet, and soon the founder took vicious hold. There was nothing to do but put him out of his misery.

Now, there is nothing to do but remember. Big Jag's remains were cremated.

The operators of the Dubai World Cup will honor Big Jag with a marker at Nad al Sheba, the site of his greatest triumph. Meanwhile, back home in California, his people will try to deal with a very large hole in their lives.