07/20/2004 11:00PM

Free House, gone too soon

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Deep into Tuesday night, at the end of a long, sad day, Trudy McCaffery was still sifting through scores of e-mails conveying heartfelt condolences.

"This is as sad as I have felt over a horse passing since Secretariat died in '89," read one.

"I am sure the Lord has a special stall, deep with straw, prepared for one of his finest creations," said another.

"Of all our horses, he was the one who gave me the most joy," McCaffery said, alone at home in Rancho Santa Fe. "He made me proud, and he made me laugh. I feel like I've lost a son."

The death of on Monday afternoon at Vessels Stallion Farm marked one of those unsettling moments when a seam rips loose in the fabric of the Thoroughbred universe, and for a second, nothing much makes sense.

If something so large and grand and full of beans as Free House can be snuffed out just slipping on a bath mat, then what chance do the rest of these fragile basket cases have when asked to train hard, race, and breed?

From day one, Free House was a scamp, possessed of an equine sense of humor that mixed the best work of both Mort Sahl and Carrot Top. This was a left-handed, right-brained kind of racehorse, a gangly teen who had no clue, even while wowing the crowd taking fastballs deep or knocking down impossible threes.

"You know, he wasn't really learning how to run until he was 5," McCaffery recalled. "I mean, how many times can you picture him just goofing around?"

Well, there was the time Kent Desormeaux aged 10 years in the 1996 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, when Free House, making his third start, drew away from his field then tried to piggyback the inside fence before swerving back to the right with a "Just kidding!" cackle that still has McCaffery shaking her head.

There was the Santa Anita Derby of 1997, when Free House had the race wrapped up and all but delivered, then suffered a sudden attack of mischief by teasing a beaten Silver Charm into a late-inning game of catch-up. Free House won by a head, but he didn't mean to.

And then there was the 1997 Preakness, hailed by many sober racing fans as the most exciting American classic run in the 1990's. It had all that and then some, featuring a chorus line at the finish consisting of Captain Bodgit, Silver Charm, Free House, and Touch Gold. That's Free House in the middle, finishing second by a head, and giving Silver Charm a white-rimmed stink eye of playful rebuke.

Long about the summer of 1998, Free House began to shed the skylarking and listen to his trainer, Paco Gonzalez. Good thing, too, because the competition wasn't getting any easier. Through his last two seasons, he ran with an older crowd that included Skip Away, Gentlemen, Real Quiet, Running Stag, Dramatic Gold, Malek, and Event of the Year. Suddenly, there seemed to be a real flair of professional pride in the way Free House won races, like the Santa Anita Handicap, the San Antonio, the Bel Air, and the Pacific Classic.

It was the 1998 Pacific Classic at Del Mar that made Free House a hometown hero once and for all, cementing his destiny as a marquee California stallion for McCaffery and her partner, John Toffan. The Classic, by melancholy coincidence, was also the last sporting event covered by the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Murray.

"He won so easily," Murray wrote, "Chris McCarron should have brought a book. He rode him like the Wilshire bus."

Since the breeding season of 2000, Free House could be found at Vessels, located about 30 miles northeast of Del Mar. His mottled gray coat went limestone white - blame it on his grandsire, Vigors - though black strands lingered in his hocks, mane, and tail. His best sons and daughters, led by Fantasy and Hollywood Oaks winner House of Fortune, are just now starting to reveal themselves.

Swaddled in hand-stitched burlap, Free House was laid to rest early Tuesday morning in a swale of grassy land nestled between an emerald pond and a brace of cottonwood trees. Scoop Vessels, who owns the farm and had a 25 percent stake in Free House, chose the plot and helped prepare the ground.

"There was just something about the way the morning light hit this spot," said Vessels. "It seemed like the right place to come visit him."

Later that afternoon, after touching the grave, McCaffery lingered at the Vessels stallion barn, a jewel of mission architecture where Free House lived in the luxury of a 20x20 stall with a high ceiling. A few of the stable hands gathered around her, sharing a collective grief.

"There was nothing out of the ordinary," McCaffery said. "It was just a routine bath after spending his afternoon in his pen, something they'd done hundreds of times before. But like they said, 'This boy, he always liked to play.' He went up, he slipped, and lost his balance. 'Senora,' said one of the guys, 'he hit his head so hard.'

"I have to accept that it was just an accident, and that such things can happen when you're dealing with hot-blooded Thoroughbreds," she added. "Even though he got the best of care, you can't put them in a glass house."

Maybe not. But you can put them on a pedestal, and that is where Free House belongs.