01/18/2008 1:00AM

French gets back into game


ARCADIA, Calif. - Neil French can be forgiven if he did not join his fellow horsemen last Tuesday morning after training hours, when a large posse combed Santa Anita's main racing surface in search of rocks dislodged from the asphalt base. They found enough to make the effort worthwhile, but French, after all, was still at home recovering from a heart attack and two procedures.

French was back on the scene Wednesday, though, pleasantly surprising his friends and inspiring trainer John Sadler to proclaim, "Now there is a real racetracker."

Amen to that. French, 55, is one of those supremely capable, second-generation horsemen who labor primarily beneath the radar, while at the same time earning the kind of respect that comes from a career characterized by high standards and just enough success to keep his name in play.

As a head trainer, French has won a number of significant West Coast events, including the Bing Crosby Handicap and the California Cup Classic. When he set up shop at the San Luis Rey Downs training center, French became the go-to guy for several top trainers in search of an off-track caretaker, most notably Richard Mandella. Among those Mandella runners entrusted to French were Dixie Union, Minister Eric, and The Tin Man.

The list goes on: nice to his mother, kind to small animals, gentle carbon footprint. French is known as good enough company to hold the attention of such urbane individuals as trainer Eddie Gregson and actor Albert Finney, a former patron. More recently, French has been a friend indeed when retired jockey Corey Black, battling back from rehab, needed a benign working environment.

All of this, of course, painted a bull's-eye squarely on his chest. Nice guys get heart attacks while the evil roam free, or at least sometimes that's how it seems. French was alone in his Arcadia apartment when his heart first began sending those nasty, knifing pains along his left arm. Then something like a bowling ball landed on his chest.

"I should have called 9-1-1," French said Friday morning, sitting at his desk in his Santa Anita stable office. "Instead I just went to bed. That was about as scary as a night could be. The next morning I drove to the hospital, and before I knew it they had that first stent in an artery. I guess it was pretty easy to figure out what was wrong."

After a second stent was successfully implanted, French got the green light to go home and then phase back into a working routine.

"I've got one medication my doctor calls my lifeline," French said. " 'Take it every day,' he said, 'if you want to live.' "

Now based at Santa Anita, French has nine horses under his care. There are no proven stars among them, but French has high hopes for 3-year-old Pearl Fisher, a son of Smart Strike who was fourth to the impressive Talk of a Cat in his debut at Hollywood Park in December.

"I'll stretch him out to a mile next week," French said as he peered into the first stall at Pearl Fisher, whose rich, reddish chestnut coat brought a son of Smart Strike named Curlin to mind.

"You can only hope," French smiled, declining even the slightest comparison. "Actually, he reminds me physically more of the other Smart Strike, English Channel. But he's a long way from there yet."

French admits to a pretty high bar when judging racehorses. It has been 28 years since he trained the best horse he ever trained, and the memory of Star Prince II still burns brightly. How else do you explain the photo of the big chestnut he keeps on the display panel of his mobile phone?

"There's a horse that came along too soon," French said. "I hadn't been training all that long when Fred Purner, the bloodstock agent, told me this Irish horse was on his way from Malaysia, and that he was some kind of a national hero over there."

French found out just how important the horse was when he got a call from Jimmy Kilroe, Santa Anita's revered director of racing.

"Mr. Kilroe said he heard that Star Prince was coming to my barn," French recalled, "and he asked if I would give him a call when he arrived. I was starting to get the idea. Then, when I saw him, I understood. He was beautiful. And the way he trained was just amazing."

Star Prince was 5 at the time and his greatest years were behind him. Still, French managed to win three races with the handsome sprinter, most memorably an allowance race down the hillside course at Santa Anita on Oct. 13, 1979.

"It's still one of the most amazing races I've ever participated in," French said. "Summer Time Guy was in there, and he'd been unbeatable. It turned into almost a match race, and Star Prince held on to win by a nose."

French was holding his thumb and forefinger a quarter of an inch apart, the trainer's version of an old-fashioned fish story. Star Prince actually beat Summer Time Guy that day by half a length, although time tends to make such exciting moments even more thrilling. The bad news is that Neil French has not had a shot at a horse like Star Prince since. The good news is that he still might.