11/08/2002 12:00AM

Futural given chance to get the last laugh

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Let's pretend for a moment that the stewards did not rule against Futural in the 2001 Hollywood Gold Cup. He won the race with authority, despite his contact with the tiring Skimming, and he was never in danger of being caught by the steadily closing Aptitude.

Had Futural's number stayed up, he would have ranked at the top of California's older horses. With victories in the San Bernardino Handicap and the Mervyn LeRoy Handicap leading up to the Gold Cup, he was already well on his way.

But the stigma of a disqualification lingers, no matter how marginal the offending foul, and the asterisk clings to Futural like a night eye. He ran a decent second to Skimming in his next start, the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, then finished up the track as the favorite in the 2001 Pacific Classic, also won by Skimming.

Futural's trainer, Craig Dollase, put his horse away for the remainder of 2001 and brought him forth again the following February. The goal was the 2002 Santa Anita Handicap, in which Futural appeared, and to the credit of his memory he was favored once again. He finished 12th of 14.

As a gelding, Futural's role was always on the racetrack. At least, that is the conventional wisdom. The hard economics of the business require a horse to pay his way. A sub-category of that particular lesson states that the fast horses must also pay for the slow horses in the stable. The real test of stewardship occurs when a fast horse becomes a slow horse, through injury or age. Sometimes the options are hard to swallow.

Futural lost his next two races after the Santa Anita Handicap, both of them races the old Futural could have won. Then, on June 6, Futural was entered for an $80,000 claiming price at Hollywood Park. He missed the break and lost again that day. But the real news was the red tag that dangled from Futural's halter as he walked off the track. The horse who finished first in the 2001 Hollywood Gold Cup had just been claimed.

Dollase had done an admirable job bringing Futural back from assorted illnesses and injuries. On the day he was lost for $80,000, he had already earned $671,340 for principal owner Jess Miller and his partner, Jack Weitz.

"I was surprised he was claimed, and the owner was surprised," Dollase said. "He was a gelding, in for a high tag, and somebody took him. You try hard not to get too attached to some of your horses, but sometimes you can't help it. You just hope they go on to a good home. Life goes on."

Life has gone on for Futural with owner Kim Hart, a Vancouver, British Columbia, businessman who has been involved in racing for more than 20 years. Hart is currently developing a virtual horse racing Internet site called Horsepower.

"Futural is my reclamation project," Hart said from his office Friday morning. "I think he's worth a lot more than $80,000. Here was the favorite for the Santa Anita Handicap, and three months later they're dumping him. I think he's going to have the last laugh."

Futural will get that chance on Sunday at Hollywood Park, when he runs in the $70,000 Steinlen Handicap. Hart was hoping the race would remain on grass as written, but it looks as if rain will turn the Steinlen into a 1 1/16-mile main track event.

"I was at Santa Anita when he won that race on grass when he was 2," Hart said. referring to the one mile Pinjara Stakes in October 1998.

"But the mud won't bother him. He'll run down the road if he has to."

In five starts for Hart, Futural collected minor checks in a pair of stakes during the northern California fairs, finished eighth in the Longacres Mile, and then was second twice in stakes at Hart's hometown track of Hastings Park.

"He's the kind of horse who is hard on himself, because he gives everything he's got every time he goes out there," Hart went on. "He can't even walk through the shed row without doing all sorts of fancy stuff. I call him 'Hammy,' because he'll ham it up every chance he gets.

"I give my trainer, Steve Bryant, a lot of credit," Hart added. Bryant took charge of Futural in August, just before the Longacres Mile. "He's been using massage therapy on the horse, and a lot of tender loving care."

Futural may need only a glimmer of his past form to do well in the Steinlen. With an off track likely and most of the grass horses staying in their barns, a small field is shaping up that could include Seinne, Freedom Crest, and Devine Wind.

"Whether or not he wins Sunday, the most important thing is that Futural start feeling good about himself again," Hart said. "He's already proven he can beat the best around. I'd like to give him the chance to prove his mettle again."