03/14/2002 12:00AM

The bridge is getting crowded with jumpers

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - All horseplayers have had the deflating experience of handicapping a race in depth, coming up with a rock-solid selection who is in a perfect spot, and watching dumbfounded as the horse finishes up the track with no apparent excuse.

The trick is not to let such races undermine your confidence, even when a bunch of them occur in clusters. There are a million reasons why horses fail to live up to expectations, and most of them can't be spotted by even the sharpest observers.

Indeed, handling inevitable losing streaks is a big part of a successful horseplayer's education, and perhaps the toughest lesson to learn. No matter how much of a wise-guy you fancy yourself, there's a mean streak lurking just around the corner that can bring you to your knees.

Even the bridge-jumpers who like to make a quick 5 percent on perceived "sure things" have been taking it on the chin lately. Check out this roster of improbable events that have recently taken place:

Feb. 15, Gulfstream Park: Pleasant County, coming off an easy entry-level allowance score opening week of the meet, was 2-5 stepping to the next condition. She set the pace for six furlongs, and then threw it into reverse to wind up fifth, taking $396,410 of a $406,931 show pool down with her. Runner-up Man I Love Clare paid $351.40 to show, which was a North American record.

"We found after the race that she had a pretty serious lung infection, with quite a bit of blood and mucus," explained Mark Hennig.

To add insult to injury, Pleasant County turned back to a sprint on March 8 with first-time Lasix, and whistled wire to wire as second choice.

Feb. 16, Aqueduct: After winning the first three starts of her career by open lengths, the 3-year-old filly Nice Boots Baby was pounded down to 2-5 in the Dearly Precious Stakes. After breaking slowly from the inside post, she rushed up along the rail and was fried to a crisp dueling with eventual winner Proper Gamble. Thoroughly spent by the quarter pole, Nice Boots Baby staggered home last of five, beaten a dozen lengths, and trashed $253,506 out of $275,489 in the show pool.

"She's sensitive on her right hip, as though she possibly banged herself in the gate," said Tony Dutrow.

March 6, Santa Anita: Love at Noon, best remembered for setting a track record on a souped-up surface on the 2001 Kentucky Derby undercard, had since lost four straight races in graded stakes company. But she had finished in the money in three of them, and she was bet to 2-5 off the drop to a second-level allowance condition. She raced fourth the entire way, beating just one horse, and blew up $308,765 from $339,653 in the show pool. She was subsequently retired when a suspensory injury was discovered.

"I knew it had to be something," said Bob Baffert. "That guy's $300,000 should have been safe."

March 10, Aqueduct: Five weeks earlier, Sherm had looked like the second coming of Hindoo winning his debut by 15 lengths under a full-nelson hold. Returned in a five-horse allowance, he steadied after the start, bore out badly on the turn, and checked in fourth, beaten 11 lengths by the third-place finisher at 15 cents on the dollar. Of $202,002 bet to show, $183,947 on Sherm went up in flames.

"He has got a red-hot sore left shin," said Gary Contessa, who a day earlier had saddled three winners, two at mutuels of $24.60 and $19.60. In addition to bucking his left shin (for the second time), Sherm reportedly grabbed a quarter from his right front hoof.

March 9, Gulfstream: Even though he was a perfect 4 for 4 over the surface, no six-figure bridge-jumpers showed for Hook and Ladder, the even-money choice in the $200,000 Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship. He stopped abruptly leaving the turn, was eased through the last eighth of a mile, and was found to be suffering from something known as a sub-epiglottic abscess.

"Basically, that's an abscess which broke open in his throat and kept him from being able to breathe properly during the race," said John Kimmel.

Now that we've reviewed some of the maladies that can befall 2-5 shots at a moment's notice, doesn't that just fill you up with confidence in your Round 2 deliberations, as you search for a Kentucky Derby winner seven weeks down the road?

Go get 'em tiger. What could possibly go wrong?