01/10/2005 12:00AM

A day unfit for man or beast

Benoit & Associates
The rain-splattered grounds at Santa Anita were not open for long on Sunday. In the one race that was run, a horse slid and broke his leg.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Everyone knew the risks, except for Unusual Sunrise. Still, he was the one who paid the ultimate price on Sunday at Santa Anita when the 4-year-old gelding with the 0-14 record suffered a fatal injury on a track that had been battered by two weeks of steady rain.

The reality of Sunday's first and only race was harsh. Five horses started, four finished, and everybody felt just rotten. Especially Barry Abrams.

"I'm not blaming anyone," said Abrams, who trained Unusual Sunrise and owned the horse with his breeder, Madeleine Auerbach. "I had an option. I could have scratched."

From the executive suite to the jocks' room, there were legitimate reservations about running at the start of the day, especially after the attack of a ferocious squall late Sunday morning that threatened to undo all the hard work put in by superintendent Steve Wood's maintenance crew.

"I have mixed emotions," Abrams said. "The track was safe as far as holding up the horses, but obviously it was slippery. My horse didn't break down - he slid. He was going so fast around the turn his leg slipped out from under him. There was nothing to grip. He spun out. When he tried to catch himself, that's when his leg went.

"I hated that our horse had to be the guinea pig to cancel the races," Abrams added. "He was a nice horse, too. Just coming around. I've had it happen before - maybe four times in 10 years of training - but you never get used to it. It was just one of those things."

One horse who was not put to the test was Carano, entered and scratched from Sunday's first. Carano is a 4-year-old son of In Excess, bred and owned by Al and Sandee Kirkwood and trained by Craig Lewis. Carano is a full brother to Valentine Dancer, winner of the 2004 Sunshine Millions grass race for fillies and mares. The Sunday race would have been his first start.

"I didn't know if the track was dangerous, but I didn't want to take the chance," Lewis said. "He's never started, and I think he could be a pretty decent horse. Why put him through that in his first out? The Kirkwoods were in agreement. So we scratched."

Or so he thought. On Monday morning, Lewis received a distressed call from the Kirkwoods, who had read in the Los Angeles Times that Carano had run in Sunday's first race and suffered a fatal injury.

The Kirkwoods have earned the right to be particularly sensitive to catastrophic breakdowns. In the summer of 1997, their stakes-winning colt Hello fractured a leg in the stretch of the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park and was euthanized. Sandee Kirkwood, who keeps a small shrine in Hello's memory, was understandably upset, even though a blindsided Lewis assured them that Carano was peacefully munching hay in his stall. Still, who are you going to believe? A horse trainer, or the L.A. Times?

"That was a bad one," said Times turf writer Bill Christine, winner of the 2004 Eclipse Award for news and commentary. "A very stupid mistake on my part. And I had no excuse, because I interviewed Mike Smith, who rode the horse who broke down."

This reporter has very little room to criticize. I once wrote that the Epsom Derby was run at Newmarket, prompting the unsolicited gift of a Michelin Guide to Great Britain with the appropriate pages marked for easy reference. Christine planned to call the Kirkwoods and apologize for causing them anguish, which is almost as good as having a horse still alive and well.

"Running on a track like that becomes a weighing process," Craig Lewis said. "It's the benefits versus the burdens - and in this case the burdens certainly outweighed the benefits, in my opinion. At least, that's a polite way of saying it."

Of course, there is nothing polite about a fatal breakdown. It is the hardest part of a tough game that demands educated, selfless decisions from all the players involved. The only conscripts are the horses.

In the short term, the cancellation of eight races on Sunday's card was a financial blow to owners, trainers, jockeys, and the shareholders of Magna Entertainment Corp., owners of Santa Anita Park. (The General Fund of the state of California also suffered, in case anyone cares.) Now the canceled races will be sprinkled among other programs during the meet in hopes of reclaiming revenue.

In the end, running Sunday's first was a calculated risk, a leap of faith based on the skills of the maintenance crew, the judgment of the jockeys, and the participation of the trainers involved. The game gambled, and lost. To his credit, Santa Anita general manager George Haines II did not hesitate to the plug on the program once that first race had been run.

"There was no question," Haines said. "It was the right thing to do."

And it was. Even if it was too late for Unusual Sunrise.