07/31/2009 12:00AM

Carava deals with difficult stretch


DEL MAR, Calif. - Well Armed and Mr Napper Tandy used to live right around the corner from each other in Barn C at Del Mar. Last year, they both had a good day in the San Diego Handicap, when Well Armed won as expected, and Mr Napper Tandy finished a promising fourth, with trouble, at odds of nearly 60-1.

After that, Well Armed went on to win the Goodwood during the 2008 Oak Tree meet and then lit the desert sky with an unprecedented 14-length victory in the $6 million Dubai World Cup last March.

As for Mr Napper Tandy, he proved his San Diego effort was no fluke by hitting the board in a pair of stakes and winning the San Francisco Mile last April at Golden Gate Fields.

Both horses arrived at Del Mar this summer with stakes dates in mind. Well Armed is all set for a defense of his San Diego Handicap title Sunday, and trainer Eoin Harty appears to have him primed for his return. Jack Carava, on the other hand, was aiming Mr Napper Tandy to the Wickerr Stakes, run the Friday evening before the San Diego. Those plans went up in smoke, though, the morning of July 23, when Carava's horse fractured his right front cannon bone while completing a five-furlong workout at Del Mar.

He's okay, at least for now, barely a week after screws were used to pull the condylar fracture together by Dr. Mark Martinelli, at his Equine Orthopedics clinic in San Marcos, just north of Del Mar. There is a longshot chance he could return to the races, but if not, a stud career awaits.

Mr Napper Tandy's injury was a tough enough blow to Carava, who trains exclusively for the La Canada Stable of Ron Valenta. That was not, however, the worst news. The barn lost two other horses for keeps, both victims of irreparable fractures suffered during workouts this week over Del Mar's increasingly frustrating Polytrack main course. It was the sixth main-track fatality between July 20 and July 30.

When a trainer of Carava's sterling reputation experiences two fatal breakdowns and the likely loss of a stakes horse in a nine-day period, alarm bells should ring. Carava and his staff handle their horses as if they answered to Coolmore or Godolphin, and it shows. Many look to Carava's operation as the model for the ideal of claiming with class. Rival trainers never hesitate to take a Carava runner. Referring to someone as a "claiming trainer" is not an insult, if the reference point is Carava.

Furthermore, Carava has never been reluctant to discuss, with discretion, the role of both preventative and prophylactic veterinary care in running a large stable. The trainer operates on the straightforward philosophy that most racehorses have some kind of a manageable physical problem, and to wish those problems away with anything less than the best possible care would be as irresponsible as resorting to illegal methods.

Carava described Mr Napper Tandy as "one of those kind of shuffling moving horses" who was plagued with bad feet.

"But he'd been no more shuffling than he's always been," Carava said. "Usually you could say a horse's stride is shortening up, and you need to find out what's bothering him. That wasn't the case. And believe me, we know when something changes."

Carava reached into his desk drawer and produced a thick sheaf of notes on each horse in the barn, with detailed observations by veterinarians after every workout.

"Here's one," Carava began, " '. . . jogged sound the following day, slight increase in fluid right knee.' Here's one who's been sore in his feet - the vet even diagrammed the problem spot so the blacksmith will know. I don't know how other people do it, but when you have a big barn it's a necessity. It helps the vets if they can go back and verify what they saw earlier to be more comfortable with what they might have to do next."

Carava resisted the temptation to blame his cluster of back luck on Del Mar's Polytrack surface. He is by no means a cheerleader for the new technology, but he has been willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. His main concern is with the maintenance of the surface, which has also been installed at Woodbine, Keeneland, Arlington, and Turfway Park.

"I do think this surface gets firm in cooler weather," Carava said. "It compacts and gets sticky, so when the horses hit they've got all that weight going forward with no slide to ease the impact.

"I was a little disappointed in the attitude of track management, though, or at least what I read," Carava added, referring to a quote from Del Mar president Joe Harper in a local paper that attributed some of the problem to sore horses.

Just then, Carava's phone rang. It was Harper.

"I told him I was really sorry it came out like that," Harper said later. "Jack's the last guy I'd say something like that about. But this losing one horse a day isn't good. We've got new harrows in and ready to use, the same kind they use at Woodbine and Arlington, and I've got Steve Young, the Keeneland trackman, coming out here. We need another set of brains on this thing."