12/28/2001 12:00AM

A failure-to-thrive saga

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WASHINGTON - When Bridger appeared in the entries for Friday's third race at Laurel Park, most racing fans did a double-take. What was the son of a stallion with a $150,000 stud fee doing in an $8,000 claiming race? Why had he waited until the end of his

7-year-old season to make the first start of his career? Could his superior genes possibly make him an effective racehorse at this advanced age?

The last question went unanswered when trainer John Bosley scratched the gelding a few hours before his scheduled debut. Bridger embodies one of the unquestioned truths of Thoroughbred racing: This is a game in which the setbacks and the frustrations greatly outnumber the moments of glory.

Bridger did evoke visions of glory on the day in July 1995 when, as a yet-unnamed 1-year-old colt, he was led into the ring at the Keeneland Yearling Sale, the most prestigious horse auction in the world. The pavilion buzzed with anticipation as it always does when a good young prospect goes up for sale.

The colt's sire, A.P. Indy, had been the horse of the year and was one of the hottest stallions in Kentucky. His dam, Wakonda, was a tough, durable stakes winner with an excellent pedigree. With these credentials, the yearling commanded a winning bid of $535,000.

Ordinarily, a Thoroughbred like this one would make his competitive debut as a 2-year-old at Saratoga or some other major track - not as a 7- or 8-year-old at Laurel. The intervening years have been trying ones for the animal and the people who invested their time and money in him.

Bridger grew up amidst the elite of the Thoroughbred racing world. He was bred by the great horseman John Nerud and bought at Keeneland by Elizabeth Moran, whose Brushwood Farm campaigned the 1985 Belmont Stakes winner Creme Fraiche. Moran intended to put her acquisition in the care of her principal trainer, Hall of Famer Bill Mott.

But Bridger developed physical problems before he ever got into serious training. He had a lesion in his stifle - the joint in the hind leg of a Thoroughbred that corresponds to the knee in a human. Mott wasn't going to waste his time on a horse whose effectiveness was probably doomed from the start, and so Moran turned her $535,000 investment over to her No. 2 trainer, her son Michael. "Mother assumed I was a miracle worker," Moran said.

"We thought there was a better chance that he would stay sound if we castrated him," Moran recalled. "But when we brought him back the stifle kept bugging him. Some horses run with [the problem] and some don't. It's like a football player - it depends how much heart they have." Bridger might not have had heart, but that wasn't his only deficiency. "He never showed much athletic talent," Moran said.

Realizing that she had no little chance of getting a return on her investment, Elizabeth Moran gave Bridger to Betty Bird, a friend and neighbor in the hunt country of Pennsylvania, hoping that the gelding might be transformed into a useful riding horse. Bird is an accomplished horsewoman, but she didn't have any success with this pupil. When Bridger bucked her off, Bird decided he should return to the career for which he was originally intended. She turned him over to her nephew, trainer John Bosley, this summer.

"He's got a lot of old problems," Bosley said. "Rear-end problems. Old tendon problems. Suspensory problems. This has been a real project." Yet Bosley wasn't exasperated by the horse's ailments or the fact that he had shown no previous aptitude for anything. He saw in Bridger's demeanor some evidence of the regal blood of A.P. Indy and Wakonda. "This horse definitely is reeking with class," the trainer. "He's been a fun horse to mess around with." Bosley was hopeful that this class would manifest itself in Friday's race.

But he observed before the race that Bridger wasn't eating with his usual gusto the day before the race - frequently a sign that something is ailing a horse. Another horse in his barn was already sick, worrying Bosley further. "Hopefully there's nothing too wrong with him," Bosley said, "but I don't like to run unless everything's going right."

He knows, too, that there is no guarantee that everything will ever go right with an aging horse whose life has always been plagued with trouble. Bridger might have missed his last chance to be a racehorse.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post