10/21/2002 11:00PM

'Disturbing' the smackdown

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The Breeders' Cup Sprint is a saloon brawl, a smackdown, a cage match with no holds barred. Riots have more rules.

The format is insane. Who thought this one up? Caligula? Take more than a dozen tightly wound speed freaks, shove them in a starting gate, and dangle a million dollars from the finish post like raw meat in a jungle tree. Ever seen sharks feed?

It hasn't happened lately, thank goodness, but horses used to die in this race with regularity. The outriders should wear black.

At Gulfstream Park in 1989, On the Line had his front right leg sliced open after an X-rated start (for violence). He tried hard to survive but died.

In 1990 at Belmont Park, the end came quickly for Mr. Nickerson, who had a fatal heart attack, and for the innocent bystander Shaker Knit, who was killed when he fell over Mr. Nickerson.

Two years later, back at Gulfstream Park, the English horse Mr Brooks broke down and took Lester Piggott with him. Piggott got up. Mr Brooks did not.

"There's no quarter," said trainer Darrell Vienna. "There's no rest. They're all under a lot of stress, and going very fast. I'm not saying it's any more or less dangerous, but it's a real clash."

Vienna gives himself a chance to not only survive the Sprint, but maybe win the whole thing this year with Disturbingthepeace, a horse with a white nose, a long frame, and six straight wins dating back to March at Santa Anita when he was still running in the shelter of races restricted to Cal-breds. That's a far cry from the company he will be keeping on Saturday, when the opposition will include Orientate, Kona Gold, Bonapaw, Swept Overboard, Crafty C.T., and the remarkable filly Xtra Heat.

The name of Vienna's horse should not be taken as an omen, even though Disturbingthepeace is owned by David Milch, the guy behind "NYPD Blue," and trained by a practicing attorney. In addition to his membership in the California bar, Vienna has a degree in psychology, as well as a background riding broncos and bulls, which lends a fresh angle to the term Renaissance Man.

"Yes, I once defended someone for disturbing the peace," Vienna confessed. "It was a jockey, but I'd rather not divulge his name."

As a trainer, Vienna has dealt with the Breeders' Cup before. He hit the board first time out when longshot Raami was third to Lashkari and All Along in the 1984 Breeders' Cup Turf. In 1992 Vienna won the Juvenile with Gilded Time, also owned by Milch, to nail down an Eclipse Award. One year later, after a one-year layoff, Gilded Time returned to finish third in the Sprint. Observers praised Vienna for nearly pulling off a miracle. Vienna thought he should have won.

"Gilded Time was a horse I didn't think could get beat - ever," Vienna said. "We were fighting some problems. A chip, bad feet, his wind. In the end, that's why he lost. He couldn't get his air."

Still, Gilded Time was beaten less than a length by Cardmania in the '93 Sprint, pretty good for a horse who had not competed in 371 days. Obviously, Vienna is not the least bit intimidated by the 69-day break that Disturbingthepeace will bring into this year's Sprint. He has not run since winning the Pat O'Brien Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 18.

"The idea that you can't train a horse up to a six-furlong race is pretty crazy," Vienna said. "I know a lot of people will tell little stories to accommodate things that make them miss races leading up to something like the Breeders' Cup. What we did has been by choice. If we get beat, there will be no other reasons."

If Disturbingthepeace gets beat, it may be because he has to turn left. Fast as he is, he practically throws out the anchor around the bend, then kicks back into high gear on the straightaway for home. Vienna is mystified.

"Normally you'd think it was because of unsoundness, but he's not unsound," the trainer said. "He's a big, rangy horse, but that's not it. I've seen sprinters built like him who could win on the bullring at Pomona.

"Earlier this year I warned a rider that the horse might feel like he's done turning for home, but don't go to sleep on him," Vienna added. "The jock must have forgotten, because he was just sitting there, looking like he was through, when somebody came alongside. The horse took off again, and the kid was almost thrown off the back."

Last year, as a 3-year-old, Disturbingthepeace had a well-earned reputation as an underachiever. Then, in this summer's Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park, he broke through with an impressive victory at 16-1. Kona Gold was among the beaten.

"I bet on him in the Triple Bend," said Vienna, who usually has better things to do with his cash. "I put some money in a TVG account, and it's still there. So if I need it on Saturday, I'm funded."