03/05/2004 12:00AM

Carroll's work speaks for itself

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NEW ORLEANS - Three days before the Jan. 24 Lecomte Stakes, Fred Aime had a situation.

Aime is the agent for jockey Shane Sellers. Sellers had started riding for Steve Asmussen, who had a horse for the Lecomte that Aime might have landed. Dangling was the mount on Fire Slam, whom Sellers had ridden to a second-place finish in the $1 million Delta Jackpot. But Fire Slam had come up with an ugly quarter crack on his hind hoof. It was Wednesday, and the colt's status for the Lecomte looked tenuous.

"I saw blood coming out of his foot," Aime said. "But David told me he'd be good for the race, and I believed him."

That is David as in Carroll, Fire Slam's 44-year-old trainer. And as usual, Carroll had this one pegged. Fire Slam, with Sellers up, gutted out a two-length win in the Lecomte.

"The horse was sore before, and he was sore after, but David got him right for that one minute and whatever," Aime said.

Relay this story to Carroll and you might get a twinkling smile accompanied by a mock brag. More likely, he would lower and shake his head - humble to the core.

Fire Slam, his foot still patched together, has made it to Sunday's $600,000 Louisiana Derby. Carroll has simply made it.

Straight out of Kildalkey in County Meath, Ireland, Carroll was bred to be a jockey. His father, Frankie, rode successfully over jumps. Brother Raymond made it as a rider on the flat. David had the desire, but by his account, not the talent.

"That's all I wanted to be as a child," Carroll said. "I found out pretty quickly I wasn't that good at it."

Carroll still found a way to ride some of the better American dirt horses of the late 20th century. After apprenticing at the Irish National Stud, Carroll came to the United States in 1985, and a year later, caught on as an exercise rider with Shug McGaughey, for whom he rode top horses such as Seeking the Gold, Personal Flag, and Rhythm. There also was Easy Goer, whom Carroll galloped and breezed for two years.

"That was probably one of the best two years of my life, to get on him every day," Carroll said.

Learning from McGaughey, Carroll said, meant paying close attention. "He never told you much. You had to learn by concentration. Shug had a sixth sense for the horses."

McGaughey remembers Carroll "trying to take in all he could take in" during his tenure.

After six years with McGaughey, two with trainer Pete Vestal, and a lifetime of experience, Carroll struck out on his own, and found horsemanship alone wasn't enough.

"I almost think horsemanship hurts you," Carroll said. "It's the era of statistics. The game has changed so much."

It took time for Carroll to translate his knowledge into management skills. Part of the problem stemmed from who he is: Carroll is too gentle for manipulation or machination. He was comfortable cleaning tack, not schmoozing. Pumping a feed supplement into a tub of oats was fine; pumping himself up was harder.

His evolution as a trainer moved forward when he stepped back from his deep skills as a rider. Carroll still gets on horses most mornings, but he rarely rides Fire Slam.

"When I ride horses like that, I tend to pick them apart," Carroll said. "It could color the way I think the horse is. In knowing so much, it would give me a different opinion of him."

Carroll said: "I've evolved 100 percent in the last two or three years. I used to always ask people, 'What do you think?' Now, I just do it."

Carroll has masterfully handled Fire Slam. Purchased at auction for $230,000 by Stan Fulton, Fire Slam came to Carroll reputed to be a runner. That was true. Fire Slam won his career debut at Keeneland and an allowance race at Churchill last fall, and his only loss, a second at Delta, counted as a success.

Carroll planned two starts at Fair Grounds, the Lecomte and the Louisiana Derby. But a loud thunk on Jan. 16 changed the dynamic. The sound was Fire Slam kicking the wall of his stall, and three days later, an abscess popped out on his heel, a nasty quarter crack pushing down through his hoof.

"It was as bad as you can have one," said blacksmith Mark Dewey, who flew in from Florida to patch the foot hours before the Lecomte. "It was so badly infected, it was five or six days to the point I could do anything with it."

The Thursday before the Lecomte, the foot began improving, and Fire Slam jogged Friday. The morning of the race, Carroll sent Fire Slam out for a gallop, getting on another horse himself to follow Fire Slam around the racetrack.

"I got in behind him to see if he switched leads, was he getting out? I felt from what I saw that once he was out on the track, he was fine," Carroll said.

Fire Slam's stall has a full screen in front of it. The colt can be lazy in his training, but he is aggressive around the barn, liable to lash out. The aggression translates into heart when he races, and Fire Slam won the Lecomte by ignoring his foot. Asked to rate Fire Slam's tolerance for pain, Carroll said, "The highest."

Carroll and Dewey agreed that once Fire Slam made it through the Lecomte, he could get to the Louisiana Derby. In fact, Fire Slam has thrived in recent weeks. Typically indifferent during solo breezes, Fire Slam turned in a sharp, smooth work Tuesday, and he is one of the main contenders Sunday.

Carroll is grateful that Fulton gave him a chance with this talented horse. He hopes there are more to come. But everything does not hinge on Sunday's race. Carroll's 8-year-old daughter, Aisling, is flying in from Louisville. His wife, Kim, and son, Declan, will watch from home. Monday morning, Carroll will be back to work, galloping some, watching the rest, and working at his desk until the backstretch has gone quiet long after the end of training hours.

"If he gets beat, he gets beat," he said.

Everything possible has been done to make sure he doesn't.