09/01/2003 11:00PM

Full treatment for Halfbridled

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DEL MAR, Calif. - The experienced Thoroughbred trainer rarely gets excited. Call it psychological self defense.

As a class, trainers can be defined in existential terms, hoping for the best while expecting the worst, and knowing, deep in their hearts, that their most heroic efforts can turn to smoke and ash.

It should come as no surprise, then, that early in the process Richard Mandella imposed a strict, barn-wide embargo on all hyperbole regarding the prospects of the 2-year-old filly Halfbridled. When she sauntered out of her stall, towering over groom Pedro Esquivias, there was to be no ooohing and aaahing at the sight. When she galloped for Crystal Brown with the power and grace of a very large, dark gazelle, it was to be considered par for the course. And when she began to outwork older colts with enthusiastic ease, Mandella urged further restraint.

There were even a few whispered comparisons to the patron saint of all 2-year-old fillies. With her grand dimensions, her seal coat, and her serious turn of foot, Halfbridled quite unintentionally summoned misty memories of - dare it be uttered? - Ruffian. Mandella got wind and banned the "R" word from further use.

However, his public self-control was sorely tested when Halfbridled engulfed a promising field of maidens in her first start. He wanted to get excited - real excited - but he knew better. After all, maiden winners come and go. Then, last Saturday by the sea, Halfbridled did things in the $250,000 Del Mar Debutante that will be talked about for years, no matter what she does from this day forth. Even Mandella decided to cut loose.

"She's a freak," the trainer declared. Etch it in stone.

Mandella's cellphone rang just as Esquivias was leading Halfbridled into the Debutante winner's circle. She had just dismantled heavily favored Victory U. S. A. and the talented maiden Hollywood Story with a three-move, thoroughly professional, five-length victory in a very good 1:22.20 for the seven furlongs.

"Your timing is perfect," Mandella told his caller. It was Alain Wertheimer, head of the House of Chanel and the owner and breeder of Halfbridled, at home in France in the wee hours of Sunday and wondering how his filly had fared. Mandella was more than happy to provide a play-by-play.

"Man, we've had a lot of luck together," Mandella said later. This is not an understatement. While doing business as La Presle Farm, Wertheimer has made American racing history with such Mandella runners as 1993 Horse of the Year Kotashaan, 1996 Pacific Classic winner Dare and Go, 1994 Beverly Hills Handicap winner Corrazona, and former one-mile world-record holder Atticus.

Halfbridled may be the best of them all. At least, that was the buzz the next morning at Del Mar, where innocent bystanders without agenda were waxing poetic about the Debutante.

Former jockey Corey Black, now a commentator for TVG and an occasional exercise rider, was on horseback for the racing network Saturday at Del Mar, ready to interview the winning rider as the field pulled up. Black was positioned at the finish line, watching the Debutante unfold on the infield big screen.

"Where Julie was at the five-eighths was the worst possible place a rider wants to be," Black began, noting the plight of Julie Krone on Halfbridled after breaking sharply from the inside post deep in the seven-furlong chute.

"You've got about a thousand choices, and none of them are good," Black went on. "If you go on you might be using your filly too soon. If you take back you have to lose ground you might never get back. If you stay where you are, you're blocked and may never get out."

Krone had been on Halfbridled enough - both morning and afternoon - to know how the filly would respond. To the spectators, it was a daring move to push forward, outrun the speed and hold position on the inside, then kick again for home at the top of the stretch. For the filly, it was nothing more than the application of lessons learned.

"She'd been through all that in her workouts," Krone said. "Richard will have four of us break off together, then the two on the inside will ease back and let the two in front come over to the rail. Then, he wants the horse on the inside at the back to go through on the rail, and the horse on the outside in the back to split horses so they all finish together. He doesn't want any of them to think they lost."

Black finally caught up with Halfbridled and Krone somewhere on the backstretch.

"Here is a filly making only her second start, going seven furlongs, making three separate moves in the race, and she's galloping out strong to the four and a half," Black said, still amazed. "You never, ever see that."

We just did.

Now Mandella must contend with the white-hot spotlight of lofty expectations. Fully exposed, Halfbridled will be the center of West Coast attention as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies approaches on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita, and she has earned it.

She is, after all, a freak - as in freak of nature.