05/29/2007 12:00AM

Day filled with sense of loss


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There have been more than 1.2 million Americans killed in combat, counting the latest 10 slaughtered in Iraq on Monday - the very day, as it happens, Americans paused to remember those killed in battles ranging from Bunker Hill to Belleau Wood to Fallujah. As holidays go, Memorial Day is far from festive.

But necessary, and ecumenical, for it is the kind of day that loved ones lost come achingly to mind, whether they were slain in a jungle, killed on the road, or crushed in a burning tower. That is why, if there are no strong objections, it would be fitting to make a tiny bit of room in a corner of the collective heart for a 5-year-old Thoroughbred mare named Three Degrees, who suffered fatal injuries while performing for the pleasure of gamblers, friends, and fans in the Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park, late on Monday afternoon.

To that point in the holiday program, horse racing rarely looked better, thanks to the work of Richard Mandella with The Tin Man, who picked up where he left off last fall with a victory in the $300,000 Shoemaker Mile that set a new standard for the Thoroughbred aging process. Obviously, life begins at 9.

The Gamely, run an hour later, could hardly have promised the same level of drama - The Tin Man rivals Lava Man in terms of local popularity - but the field was choice, and as the fillies and mares reached the far turn of the lightning-fast turf course, it became apparent that the Bobby Frankel team of Citronnade and Price Tag were assuming total control.

That did not stop Three Degrees. Under Victor Espinoza, who was fresh from his win aboard The Tin Man, the gray mare was unleashing one of her steady late runs on the outside of the field, the kind that secured major pieces of such races as the Matriarch, the Yellow Ribbon, and the Del Mar Oaks. Third in the Gamely, a Grade 1 event, was definitely within reach. And then her left ankle gave way.

She never went down, thanks in part to Espinoza's horsemanship, but by the time help arrived it was clear the damage was beyond repair. Her trainer, Paddy Gallagher, was quickly at her side, consulting with the track vet, conceding the worst. Soon, the green screen was unfurled, and Three Degrees was euthanized.

"Both sesamoids, the suspensories - everything was gone," Gallagher said a little while later, his expression still stunned and distant. "She was in shock. The leg had no support at all."

While her people mourned and the remaining crowd dutifully placed their bets on the delayed final race of the day, Three Degrees was transported to a concrete holding pen at the back of the Hollywood property, in the association yard, where the heavy equipment lives next to the water tower and a pair of giant fueling tanks.

The mare rested on her left side, her long tail tucked beneath her and her back feet, shod in size-five Queens Plates, delicately crossed. Her salt-and-pepper coat was cool and dry. The corrupted left front ankle was noticeably swollen, but neither bone nor blood had broken through the skin. Her forelock was still twirled and tied with a rubber band, just above a neatly trimmed bridlepath. Her eyes were open, quiet in the dying light.

The final destination of the body of Three Degrees would be the racehorse necropsy study program at the University of California at Davis, where fatalities have been analyzed for the past decade or more in hopes of discovering pre-existing conditions undetectable by conventional diagnostics and conscientious horsemanship.

But if that is any consolation in the case of Three Degrees, it will have to come later, if at all, for Aron Wellman, the 29-year-old budding owner and syndicate manager who formed the partnership that imported Three Degrees from Ireland in late 2004, then savored her development into a stakes winner and valuable broodmare prospect. Her worth was further validated when veteran owners David Bienstock and Chuck Winner entered the partnership after Three Degrees won the 2005 Honeymoon Handicap on the Hollywood turf.

Wellman was raised by his parents, Michael and Cory, in an atmosphere of Thoroughbred ownership and a household that included such regular guests as Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Delahoussaye. Until last Monday, about the worst racing trauma the young Wellman had suffered through was Shoemaker's death, in October of 2003.

"I mean, today of all days, when they were honoring Shoe with his race, and she was looking so good - all the karma was right, and then this," Wellman said, fighting tears, in the tunnel near the jockeys' room. "She died because she tried so hard. That was her. But she didn't deserve this to happen."

None of them does. As the field for the final race of the day finally left the paddock, the voice of Sarah McLachlan soared through the track's loudspeaker system, singing the last in a series of memorial-themed songs sprinkled throughout the day. This one, by sad but appropriate coincidence, was McLachlan's melancholy "I Will Remember You," ending with, "Don't let your life pass you by / Weep not for the memories."

And as it played, in a corridor deep beneath the Hollywood Park grandstand, Aron Wellman leaned against the wall, put his face in his arm, and cried for Three Degrees.