10/28/2002 12:00AM

A Classic case of old-school panache

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - It is said that before you freeze to death, before hypothermia pulls the shade, you pass into a sleep-like trance of near hibernation. That makes sense, because while I slept last Saturday at Arlington, both nose and toes going numb from exposure, I dreamed that Volponi won the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Okay, so it wasn't that cold. And Volponi did win the Classic. Won it, in fact, as if he'd been doing this kind of thing all his life, emerging from a relatively talented cluster of animals to strip their credentials bare. Winners of the Derby, the Preakness, the Travers, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Pacific Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, and even England's Eclipse Stakes, for goodness sake - all of them swept away like matchsticks in a Lake Michigan wind.

Volponi's grand finale to the 19th Breeders' Cup bore testimony to the old-school style of trainer Philip G. Johnson - P.G. to everybody - and to the idea that nothing is impossible as long as you keep showing up for work.

At the age of 77, Johnson is long past taking to heart things like his record in the Breeders' Cup (0 for 2), or Volponi's lack of pre-Classic press, or even the fact that, at odds of 43-1, Volponi was by far the longest shot of the 12 in the Classic field.

After it was over, and the 4-year-old Volponi had won by a record 6 1/2 lengths, Johnson patiently explained how it happened. There was nothing fancy. No blinding inspirations. In the past, blinkers had made the colt braver on the dirt, so they were added. The 3-year-olds in the race were nothing for Johnson to worry about, so he didn't.

"I thought they'd have to get awfully lucky to win," Johnson said of the young guns War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro, Came Home, and Hawk Wing. "I thought Evening Attire was the horse we had to beat."

So he did, and then some.

"I'll tell you, this guy knows what he's doing," said Jose Santos, Volponi's rider. "You talk to him about a horse, and you get very confident, no matter what everybody else is saying."

P.G. Johnson may not have been on the Breeders' Cup radar before last Saturday, but he is in the Hall of Fame.

He made it there in 1997, without the benefit of training a national champion, a Triple Crown winner, or a Breeders' Cup winner. When it happened, there was some confusion. Had the election turned into a Mr. Congenialty contest? Certainly, there is no classier act around than Johnson. Or had the process finally chosen to recognize the unmeasurables, those qualities of horsemanship and integrity that transcend the droning catechism of big deal events? The answer, thankfully, is yes.

Jose Santos, on the other hand, is not in the Hall of Fame. Go figure. Now 41, he has been a national champion four times, from 1986 through 1989, in money earned by his mounts. He won the Eclipse Award in 1988, the George Woolf Award in 1999, and before Volponi, he had won no fewer than six Breeders' Cup races.

Jose Santos Jr. can recite them all, beginning with Manila in the 1986 Turf and most recently with Chief Bearheart in the Turf of 1997. Late on Breeders' Cup Day, in a nearly empty Arlington Park jockeys' room, 8-year-old Jose was keeping up the chatter while his father fielded phone calls and signed souvenir programs. Finally, he headed for the shower.

Beneath the bad-boy tattoo on the upper part of his right arm, Santos displayed a network of long, ugly scars that led finally to a misshapen wrist, a memento of a visit to a Chicago racetrack in May of 2001.

"It was a surprise," said Santos, who prefers his humor dry. "It was at Hawthorne. I just won the Hawthorne Derby [aboard Kalu], and coming back, my horse saw something."

"It was the picture," Jose Jr. piped up. "The picture of the horse biting the other horse." He was talking about a Hawthorne billboard.

"Whatever it was," Santos continued, "he went one way and I went the other. I landed with all my weight on my hand. It shoved the bones up into my wrist. The horse galloped back to the winner's circle, but I went straight to the hospital."

For four long months, through the heart of the 2001 season, Santos had to wear a fixation plate on the outside of his right arm, bolted to the bones of the forearm and the hand. It was not as severe as the surgeries of 1992, when his right arm needed 14 screws to repair. But, at the age of 40, it was a injury that could have ended the career of a lesser spirit.

"My father was a jockey," Santos said. "Three of my brothers are jockeys. I am the oldest, so they look up to me. I can't let down. I have to come back. Besides, I have a family. I have to make a living."

On Saturday, he made history.