08/27/2006 11:00PM

Consistency is underrated

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Given all the variables, all the subtle attacks on soundness, all the reasons that things can and do go wrong, one of the best things that can be said of any Thoroughbred racehorse is that he is consistent.

This is not to be confused with the human interpretation of the word, which can be bent to mean dull, plodding, or downright stubborn. "Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative," wrote Oscar Wilde, who never lacked for imagination.

In a racehorse, however, the ability to reproduce the same level of energy and competitive concentration, time after time, is the stuff of spun gold. The paragons are easy to name - Tom Fool, Citation, Cigar, Personal Ensign, just to name a sparkling few. Smarty Jones was on his way before being yanked offstage. Afleet Alex may have joined them as well, while Barbaro, though briefly involved, can be granted special membership.

Right now, most of the fun is being provided by Bernardini in the East and Lava Man out West. Lava Man sometimes cuts it close, which adds drama to his every appearance, while Bernardini seems to float above the fray, doing business on a different plane.

In California, another one of these rare creatures has emerged. Last Saturday, in the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Mile, Aragorn took his third straight major California event, bursting through an accommodating hole inside to win under wraps, shading 1:33 for the distance.

A son of Giant's Causeway, Aragorn has run seven times in 11 months, and by now his consistency has a clockwork precision, thanks in part to the guidance of Corey Nakatani and Neil Drysdale. Even in the unpredictable world of two-turn miles over narrow turf courses, Aragorn's fans can almost close their eyes, shut their ears, and anticipate his every move, right down to Nakatani's dramatic push of the button. Every step Aragorn takes is adding more reason to make him the American-based favorite for the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4.

There is another Californian, coming late to the party, who at the age of 5 is beginning to display the traits of first-class consistency. With his victory in the Del Mar Handicap on Sunday, under Alex Solis as usual, T.H. Approval has won his third major West Coast grass marathon of the season, which means that he enters the key autumn phase of the season as the most accomplished horse on the circuit at 11 furlongs or more.

As recently as April, the only thing T.H. Approval could be counted on doing with regularity was winning the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita. During a period of 15 months in 2005 and early 2006, his only victories came in back-to-back runnings of the 1 3/4-mile event. But then, this was a horse who needed seven races to knock off a maiden win as a 3-year-old, and who did not try a stakes until he was 4, in his 14th start.

Just winning San Juans won't get you much anymore, since 12 furlongs is where the big boys play, and they run very fast. But T.H. Approval (named for Tadahiro Hotehama, his owner and breeder, and With Approval, his sire) has shown a new dimension in winning the Sunset Handicap and the Del Mar Handicap, putting in a finishing kick that might hold up in tougher company. His trainer, Eduardo Inda, was asked to explain the change.

"I think he's more mature, in everything he does," said Inda, a former assistant to Ron McAnally who has trained such good ones as Riboletta, Borodislew, and Excitable Lady. "Before, he used to play around in his stall, try to bite, try to kick. Now, he's more relaxed. He'll still try to bite you if he doesn't know you" - the standard greeting among stallions, by the way - "but it's different. Before he was a little bit mean, and he didn't put all his attention into the races. Now all his energy seems pointed at the track. That's where he means business."

Good health is always a factor, and while the light-bodied T.H. Approval has been blessed with a lifelong reputation for soundness, he did get a long break at the end of 2005 to let nature mend a sore stifle. Nature, obviously, did its job.

"His last two races, he's been making a move like a racehorse," Inda said. "And Alex is riding him with so much confidence. Before the Sunset we were a little nervous. Alex said, 'Don't be nervous. We'll win. He's a good horse.' "

Sometimes it is as simple as that. But Inda, who spent six years in close contact with John Henry, knows what it takes to play with the Aragorns and Bernardinis of this world. That is why he must be taken seriously when he says that T.H. Approval is now on a schedule that will take him to the Breeders' Cup Turf against the best mile-and-a-halfers the world has to offer on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

"I'll tell you something," Inda said. "This horse, with his little feet, if he gets soft grass at a mile and a half, he will run very good. And around that time in Kentucky, you know you're gonna have some rain."