10/21/2007 11:00PM

Gate woes no longer a fatal flaw

EmailOCEANPORT, N.J. - The Green Monster is not just the left-field home-run fence at Fenway Park in Boston. It's also a term some racetrackers use to try and describe an anxious horse's perception of the starting gate, that metal behemoth often painted green. And the gate was almost the undoing of Trippi's Storm.

But while it took about forever for the horse to get over his gate problems, it has taken almost no time at all for him to climb the ranks of East Coast turf stakes horses. A $32,000 maiden claimer when he began this season, Trippi's Storm comes into Saturday's Breeders' Cup Mile off a win over After Market in the Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park.

There may be an infinite number of potential mental roadblocks standing between a raw Thoroughbred and a career as a racehorse. Go back to the very basics and realize that a horse must be taught just to move forward - not sideways, not backward - with a rider sitting on him. The mind of a horse often seems to conjure a different reality than the one we humans inhabit. And once in a certain state of mind, a horse can be - not to mix animal metaphors pigheaded.

So it was with Trippi's Storm, who showed trainer Stanley Hough talent as a 2-year-old of 2005.

"He trained very well, but he was a bad gate horse," said Hough. "Basically, he wouldn't come out."

In his first eight starts, Trippi's Storm broke ninth or worse every time. Sometimes, he got back into the race and came close to beating nice horses, like Songster, or On Board Again. Hough kept persevering, waiting for Trippi's Storm to get the hang of things.

"I thought when he got used to it, and was in there around other horses, he'd get better," Hough said. "He got worse."

At Belmont, in late spring of 2006, Trippi's Storm took his neurosis to new heights; Hough took him to the gate, and Trippi's Storm refused to leave it. "That can be a career-ending thing," Hough said.

So, Trippi's Storm was gelded, turned out for a few months, brought back into training and dropped in for a $32,000 maiden-claiming tag on Jan. 7 at Gulfstream Park. And guess what: He broke last of 12 and finished third as the 7-5 favorite.

"I was really disappointed," said Hough. But then, kind of on a lark, Hough worked Trippi's Storm on turf, and this apparently tripped some sort of switch in Trippi's Storm's brain. Trippi's Storm seemed comfortable on the turf, and in his first grass try - and ninth career start - he won a $50,000 maiden claimer on March 15 at Gulfstream Park. Back a month later in an entry-level allowance race at 1o1/16 miles, Trippi's Storm got into trouble but won again - easily.

"After that, I thought he was going to be a stakes horse," Hough said, and he was right. Trippi's Storm came close in 10, 11, and 12-furlong turf stakes, and finally won one in the one-mile Kelso, which is closer to his best distance. "Now, he's breaking fine," said Hough.

Maybe Trippi's Storm developed an inner confidence that helped him stop freezing up in the gate. And Hough points out that leaving the gate fast isn't a requirement of a two-turn turf horse, anyway. In any case, it can be said that Trippi's Storm got his big break when he learned to break - and now it would not be a shock if he broke through in the BC Mile.