10/05/2006 11:00PM

Gaines lets her 2-year-old fly


Carla Gaines is a conservative soul. She blames it on her Alabama upbringing, and it carries over to her handling of impetuous Thoroughbreds. In a hurry she is definitely not.

That is why it was such a surprise when word came down about the 58.60 five-eighths work posted by Spot the Diplomat last Monday at Santa Anita in his final significant prep for the Norfolk Stakes on Sunday. Gaines maintains it was definitely not what she had in mind.

"That's just not my style," said Gaines, who trains Spot the Diplomat for breeder John Harris. "I wasn't real happy with my exercise rider. But then I followed him back to the barn every step of the way, and when they pulled the tack off he wasn't even blowing. It was like he hadn't even galloped."

Gaines can be forgiven her anxiety. A young horse like Spot the Diplomat does not come along every day. The last thing she wanted to do was trash a spring and summer's worth of careful management with a single, excessive gesture. No one ever got paid for a flashy workout.

Sometimes, though, a young horse just can't help it. The special ones yearn to spread their wings and fly, and if they are lucky, they have a trainer who knows when to give and when to take.

Once assured that the work had done more good than harm, Gaines figured that maybe the thought of taking on Horse Greeley and Principle Secret in the Norfolk wasn't such a wild idea after all. At 1 1/16 miles, the race has served to expose sheer sprinters in the past, usually to the advantage of horses who need more ground to display their talents.

"Really, with 2-year-olds, you can't be too afraid of anybody," Gaines said. "I mean, they change so much, especially when you ask them to go two turns. Anything can happen."

Spot the Diplomat is a son of Worldly Manner, the winner of the 1998 Del Mar Futurity who was snapped up shortly afterward by Sheikh Mohammed and pretty much disappeared into the Godolphin maw. Worldly Manner reappeared in the States to run around with the field in the 1999 Kentucky Derby, and that was that. He ran a few more times without winning and was retired, standing first in Florida and then in California at Creston Farm. A son of Riverman, he now stands in Oklahoma.

Gaines, who has trained in Southern California for 10 years, has no particular recollection of Worldly Manner. And it really does not matter, since her colt is different in both color and build, leaning more toward the Moscow Ballet side of the family as represented by his dam, Scare Tactics.

"He's not a real big colt," Gaines said. "Kind of lean and flat-muscled. I'm told his pedigree gives him a right to get a distance of ground, so we'll see."

True to form, Gaines has taken a modest path to this point with Spot the Diplomat, keeping him among California-bred company. He made his debut in June at Hollywood, finishing third in a learning experience, then reeled off three straight wins, including the Graduation Stakes and the I'm Smokin Stakes at Del Mar.

Perhaps the most promising aspect to Spot the Diplomat's winning performances has been an ability to either set or force the pace, and then finish the job with a solid final furlong. Since he has yet to compete past three-quarters of a mile, Gaines tried to anticipate the unfamiliar challenges of the Norfolk's 1 1/16 miles with a two-turn work on Sept. 25. Clockers gave him an official seven-eighths in 1:27.60.

"I put him in behind another horse for the experience," Gaines said. "He did all right, but I did wish he had worked a little stronger."

Isn't that just like a trainer? Never satisfied, never happy, always looking at the glass as half empty and about to slide off the counter.

In fact, Gaines is one of those rare, effervescent backstretch personalities, loath to speak too unkindly of either man or beast. Accompanied by Cole, her doting black Labrador, she is a mellowing agent among the grumblers. She can also train.

Her finest hour came at the 2002 Cal Cup when she won two of the major races on the program with the classy mare Super High and the sprinter Unlimited Value. The European mare Blending Element gave Gaines a cluster of minor stakes wins on turf, and the quick Image of Glory won stakes in both Southern and northern California.

In the Norfolk, however, Spot the Diplomat is offering Gaines the chance to break through with a major win in a glamour division. Two-year-olds who blossom at this time of year tend to bring attention to all those in close proximity.

"I love 2-year-olds," Gaines said, raving over their enthusiasm and relative innocence. "I wish I had 200 of them. But I don't, so I have to do what's right by this colt, because the good ones are so hard to replace."