09/12/2003 12:00AM

Gamble pays off in heartland


ANDERSON, Indiana - There were probably faster and better races somewhere else Thursday night, but there can't have been a more interesting horse than the favorite in the eighth race at Hoosier Park here amid the cornfields of central Indiana.

Hoosier, the smallest and youngest member of the Churchill Downs family of racetracks, sits 168 miles due north of the home of the Kentucky Derby, a straight shot up I-65 to Indianapolis and then another 26 miles toward Fort Wayne. Opened in 1994, Hoosier was built in an era of realistic expectations, with one primary level and room for just a few thousand customers. While the rows of theater-style seating remain mostly empty for live racing on weeknights, the rest of the place was subsequently converted into an exemplary simulcasting facility, with spacious work areas and hundreds of monitors bringing in every signal in America day and night.

On a smaller scale but with a similar feel to Emerald Downs or Canterbury Park, Hoosier manages to feel lively despite a modest crowd that would make a coliseum-style track seem deserted. I had the place pretty much to myself as the 6:10 p.m. first post approached Thursday night, but as I paged through my PM Simulcast edition of the Form over the next hour - featuring Charles Town, Emerald, Hoosier, Penn National, Retama and Turfway - the regulars started wafting in.

Forsaking all those exotic simulcast signals, as well as the trotters from Indiana Downs and the Quarter Horses at Albuquerque, I stuck to the live racing and began with a cheap thrill. A four-horse by five-horse daily-double crisscross started ever so brightly with the opener, a full field of Indiana-bred first-time starters. Just when it seemed that the 8-5 favorite was a cinch in deep stretch, he took a right turn a la Storming Home in the Arlington Million, opening the rail for a Lac Ouimet firster I had used at 39-1. Alas, the five horses I used in the second race included the 22-1 shot who ran second and should have been put up but not the 5-2 winner that the knuckleheaded stewards left up after a 10-minute inquiry. Even in Indiana, life ain't fair.

But what's a $1,900 double next to the inspiring record of Basinbob? The favorite in the featured eighth race, Basinbob is one nice racehorse and a tribute to trainer Michael Nance's care, patience, and obvious expertise at negotiating a condition book.

The 6-year-old gelding, a son of Tajawa and the Executive Order mare Banannie My Fannie (I am not making this up), won his first two career starts at Fairmount Park three years ago and then went to the sidelines for two years. He returned last spring with three victories and three seconds in six starts, exhausting his restricted claiming conditions and winning at the $8,000 optional claiming level before taking the winter off. When Basinbob returned at Turfway Park in March, Nance rolled the dice.

"I don't now how he got away with it," said Kevin Mack, Hoosier's director of operations, with an admiring smile.

Nance entered Basinbob in an open $5,000 claiming race, and half the trainers at Turfway must still be kicking themselves for not taking the gelding from Fairmount who had won 5 of 8 career starts while banking $26,640. Basinbob not only won easily that night at $7.40, but now qualified for every starter allowance in the heartland for horses who had run for a $5,000 tag in 2002-03. He won one at Beulah later in March, another at Fairmount in April, and a third at Indiana Downs in May.

Then came a rainy night at Fairmount in June, and Basinbob couldn't handle the slop, stopping badly to run sixth, the first time he had been worse than second in 14 career starts. When he returned for the first time since then at Hoosier on Thursday night, the morning line had him at 5-2, but he was 1-5 if you could forgive his last start and thought he was ready off a three-month layup. Only some bettors did, making him the favorite but not an odds-on choice.

"Basinbob was clear at once," the chart records for posterity, "widened his lead at every call and was ridden out at the end." The margin was 7 1/4 lengths, the payoff a fat $5. So he's 6 for 7 this year and his career record now reads 15-11-3-0. It ought to get even better, since he probably gets to win this race every time they write it for the rest of the year, and he'll still qualify next year for having run for $5,000 in 2003-04.

There are thousands of gorgeous yearlings selling for hundreds of millions at Keeneland these days, but it's no sure thing that a single one of them will win 11 of his 15 starts. To find a horse like that, you might just have to pay a little closer attention to the $5,000 claimers in the entries at Turfway next winter.