04/16/2008 11:00PM

Gaines keeps an even keel


ARCADIA, Calif. - The party's over. The thrill is gone. Mired in a losing streak that had gripped the stable for more than a week, Carla Gaines moped around her Santa Anita barn Thursday morning, cursing her fates and bemoaning the day she ever decided to become a Thoroughbred trainer.

Or not.

As trainers go, Gaines definitely operates at the mellow end of the spectrum. Her dog is spoiled, her horses are content, and her owners pledge their undying allegiance. If she gets angry, it's usually directed at her new iPhone. But then she gets over it quickly.

Gaines just as quickly shed the media glamour of a recent winning streak that put her name in lights and stretched through six consecutive starters - their names were Harlem, Lots of Sunshine, River Glow, Grylls, Lucky J.H., Best Affair - from March 31 through April 5. This was closely followed by a sweep of two stakes on the April 6 Santa Anita card (with full sisters, no less) and another win at Bay Meadows on April 7. At one point, Gaines won with 11 of 15 Santa Anita runners.

Lately, though, it has been the Sahara. Back to reality. All glory is fleeting.

"Nobody calls me anymore," Gaines sighed. Then she quickly recovered. "Ask me if I care."

She laughed, because she knows better. Even the greatest trainers usually lose four out of every five, a rate that either keeps them humble or drives them nuts. Or both. Clusters like the Great Gaines Streak have no particular explanation, especially in a mid-sized stable such as hers. They are simply meant to be savored, as one of life's happy accidents.

"I just kept entering," she said, "then I'd look at the Form, and look at my assistant. 'I know this sounds crazy,' I'd say, 'but I think we're going to win both races today.' As you say it, it sounds strange. But it goes that way - the luck of the draw. There are so many factors you can't control. Sometimes it seems like every single race I enter I get the 1-hole, or if not it will be the outside going a mile on the grass. Then things turn in your favor. But for it to be that much of a run was just crazy."

Gaines entered the final week of racing at Santa Anita with 20 wins from 72 starts, and she will try to go out with a bang on Saturday with Foxysox in the Santa Barbara Handicap. But after what happened earlier in the meet, when her Santa Anita stable was hit hard by a mysterious virus, Gaines knows she is lucky to even be part of the mix.

"It was kind of scary," Gaines said. "We weren't sure what it was, very much out of the ordinary as far as a virus goes. Different horses would have different symptoms. One would cough with a lot of nasal discharge. Another wouldn't have any respiratory problems but would spike a temperature off and on for two or three weeks. Trachea washes and swabs never really showed us much, like it was a bug we'd never seen before.

"Inside the barn, we tried to keep them away from the others," she went on. "We were disinfecting a lot, handling them with gloves. One groom was with all the sick ones. Sometimes that's all you can do, keeping it isolated."

Finally, the symptoms began to disappear and Gaines was able to put her sick horses back to work.

"They kind of all bounced back," she said. "But I think if you give them enough time to get over illnesses like that, you can be in good shape. My clients are really good about that, too, and they went through a stretch of very high vet bills and very low monetary rewards from racing."

The eternal bright spot in the Gaines universe, no matter how the day unfolds, is the presence of Nashoba's Key, the 2007 California horse of the year. In her last start, the cantankerous mare made mincemeat of the Santa Margarita Handicap, after which Gaines prescribed a two-month break before further goals were considered. It was a good idea, too, except that she forgot to ask Nashoba's Key, who rules the roost at the Hollywood Park division.

"She's getting so wild," Gaines said. "She just kicked another person, and she got two other horses in the barn stirred up so much they banged their heads. In other words, she's saying she's had enough of the vacation thing. Let's go to work."

As if there hasn't been enough action and anxiety so far this season, Gaines, 55, submitted in January to the latest in a series of surgeries to repair a shoulder damaged by years aboard hard-pulling hunters and jumpers in her riding days. She is well on the mend now, but it has been months since she pulled the girth on one of her runners.

"I could, probably, with a little help," she said. "But as weird as we are in this business, when we got on such a roll, I wasn't about to start saddling them. If I did, and it got beat, it clearly would have been my fault. Of course, in the last week I couldn't get a sniff, so maybe I should jump in and saddle Foxysox."