05/21/2004 12:00AM

Early bloomers don't always fade out

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Now that it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that lightning can strike anytime and anywhere, a race like Sunday's $75,000 Willard Proctor Stakes at Hollywood Park might deserve more than just the usual glance.

Blame it on Seabiscuit, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones. Especially Smarty Jones.

Roy and Pat Chapman, who bred and own the Derby and Preakness champ, describe their operation as "strictly ham and eggs." For years and years, they flew so low that radar was never an issue. Then came Smarty Jones, and Katie Couric followed.

About this time last year, Smarty Jones was getting ready for his first race. Before he could run, however, he finished second in that famous fight with a starting gate, an impetuous act that effectively delayed his debut until November. The rest, as they say, is hysteria.

Normally, a little 2-year-old heat for the early bloomers of May is long forgotten by fall. Conventional wisdom holds that such horses eventually give way to their classically bred and more conservatively handled cousins.

Still, there is plenty of money on the table for the precocious, and some very good horses have gone to work at this stage of their racing lives. Affirmed made his first start on May 24. Foolish Pleasure's debut was on April 4. Deputy Minister was off and running by May 10, while Best Pal took his first bow on May 18. Even John Henry, Ol' Man River himself, got an early beginning, making his first start as a 2-year-old on May 20, 1977.

Nick Hines, that mountain of unbridled enthusiasm, will be bringing over a young gun named Gentleman Count for the five-furlong Proctor. Owned by Brian Carney, proprietor of a popular tavern near Santa Anita, Gentleman Count will be making the first start of what Hines hopes will be a long and profitable career.

Hines has been feeding and exercising Gentleman Count for only a couple of weeks. Most of the colt's foundation was laid by trainer Mike Goodin at Rancho Fortunata, a Southern California farm and training facility. So far, Hines likes what he sees.

"I'd say he stands about 16 hands," Hines said Friday morning from his Hollywood stable. "He's got a real strong shoulder, and a real strong forearm. In human terms, he's built like a Mike Tyson - just ripped - but he is a little on the heavy side right now. So call him a combination of Tyson and George Foreman.

"He's been very professional in how he trains," Hines went on. "He definitely holds a presence when he's on the racetrack. I've worked him twice, the last time in company from the gate. I told the rider to get him to relax and then finish. For such a young horse, he knows what he has to do."

In trainerspeak, that sometimes means a horse has not done enough. Hines concedes that he is in the dark when it comes to gauging the bedrock fitness of Gentleman Count, and that goes against the trainer's grain.

"Foundation is everything," Hines said. "With the right foundation, you can accomplish great things. And the last thing you want to do is give a young horse a bad experience this early in their career."

At age 33, Hines is smart enough to know what he does not yet know. Starting an unraced 2-year-old in a stakes is something new, and he is approaching the Proctor with caution.

"I don't ever want to learn at the expense of the animal," Hines said. "And I think in every horse's life there is a crossroad. How you manage that horse can lead to the greatest things, or it can lead to his demise as a racehorse.

"Horses are out there on their own," he went on. "They have no teammates to turn to. We're in their corner - hotwalker, groom, trainer - and it's our job to get their confidence up. But if you have a bad experience as a child, you tend to remember it a lot longer than if it happened when you were older. When I was 5, I was riding my bike around an empty swimming pool with my best friend. I lost control and ended up with a skull fracture, and I remember everything about that day."

There is also a resiliency to youth that gives Hines comfort. Gentleman Count strikes him as a colt who will move forward from his first taste of the ring.

"When I was a kid on the playground, I thought I could beat the biggest, baddest, meanest guy around," Hines said. "You don't know what your shortcomings are when you're a kid. That comes when you get older."

Winning a race named after Willard Proctor would be the cherry on the sundae for Hines. The late, legendary Proctor was a tall Texan who trained such outstanding older runners as Convenience, Gallant Romeo, and Uniformity, as well as the brilliant 2-year-olds Woozem, Table Hands, The Carpenter, and Swear.

"I didn't get to know him," Hines said, "but I met him, and he epitomized what I believe a racehorse trainer should be. He was his own man, and not afraid to speak his piece. He was pure, raw horsemanship. It was a man like Proctor who gave me the hunger to get into the game."

It could be a colt like Gentleman Count who takes Hines to the next level.