05/31/2006 12:00AM

A good one in Drysdale's eyes

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Neil Drysdale was more than pleasantly surprised when he heard the news this week that the Chilean star Cougar II had been elected to the racing Hall of Fame.

"He is certainly very deserving," Drysdale said Wednesday morning after training hours at Hollywood Park. "He was the first foreign-bred millionaire, and equally adept on turf or dirt, a very versatile horse. You don't see many like that anymore."

As a member of the Hall of Fame since the summer of 2000, Drysdale has a rightful interest in the names arrayed alongside his on the walls of the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In addition to earning his own plaque, he has trained Hall of Famers Bold 'n Determined, Princess Rooney, and A.P. Indy.

Drysdale, though, was more than just a bystander to the Cougar years in the early 1970's, when the "Big Cat" was North American grass champion of 1972 and victorious in such major events as the Santa Anita Handicap, San Juan Capistrano, Oak Tree Invitational, Sunset, and two runnings of the Californian. As chief assistant to Charlie Whittingham, Drysdale was there every step of the way.

Cougar, who raced for Mary Bradley (then doing business as Mary Jones), was a Southern California fan favorite, every bit as popular as such local heroes as Native Diver, Best Pal, and John Henry. With his curly mane, long tail, and ferocious stretch punch, Cougar was a reliable crowd-pleaser whose trademark was a high-kneed, ground-pounding action - not exactly the classic style.

"Charlie said, early on, 'Just wait 'til he gets rolling on the grass. He'll level off,' " Drysdale said. "But of course he never did."

As it turned out, it didn't matter. Cougar competed at the top of the game to the very end, making his next-to-last start at age 7, when he finished third to Secretariat and Riva Ridge in the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup. He retired with earnings of $1,162,725, at that time good enough for eighth among the all-time leaders.

"He was very laid back, a very easy horse to be around," Drysdale said. "I remember flying back to New York for the Marlboro with Cougar and Kennedy Road, who was a real rough and tough kind of horse. Cougar just sort of watched him carefully the whole flight."

With a grass champ like Cougar as a benchmark, Drysdale's standards for male turf horses always have been understandably high. Such runners as Prized, Both Ends Burning, Hawksley Hill, Political Ambition, Labeeb, and War Chant lead the Drysdale resume, impressing their trainer as the best of the bunch. That is why it is worth noting the exciting vibes he's sending out about his latest prodigy, Aragorn, the 1 3/4-length winner of last Monday's Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park.

"He ran a blinder the other day, didn't he?" Drysdale said. "He's improved, and he trained going into that race really well."

A 4-year-old son of Giant's Causeway, Aragorn has yet to put a foot wrong in five American starts. Before the Shoemaker, he won the Oak Tree Derby and finished close seconds to Milk It Mick in the Kilroe Mile and to Charmo in the San Francisco Mile. Both of those horses were behind him last Monday.

Aragorn was bred and races for the Ballygallon Stud of Belinda and Roy Strudwick in Ireland's County Kilkenny. David Loder trained Aragorn in England until his American migration last summer.

"He'd shown talent as a 2-year-old," Drysdale said. "Then at 3, David said that he never really got the right kind of ground. He likes it firm, which is why they thought he'd do well in California."

Drysdale confessed that he was not up to speed on the derivation of Aragorn's name. And that's okay. For those of us who have not sold our souls to the J.R.R. Tolkien juggernaut and his "Lord of the Rings" saga, Aragorn Strider was, according to my trusty Wikipedia, "the 16th Chieftain of the Dunedain of the North who was later crowned King Elessar Telcontar, 26th King of Arnor, 35th King of Gondor, and First High King of the Reunited Kingdom." There will be a quiz later.

"I'm one of the few people who is not a Tolkien fan," Drysdale said. "I think I was forced to read Tolkien when I was too young, and it put me off it for the rest of my life."

Drysdale may need to bone up on his children's reading list, however. As if the prospects of Aragorn heading for a long-term date in the Breeders' Cup Mile aren't entertaining enough, the 58-year-old trainer and his wife, Shawn, are expecting their first child somewhere near Breeders' Cup time in November. Drysdale was asked if they have yet to discover the gender of the little one.

"No, but I think we'll be finding out in the next week or so," Drysdale said. "We certainly don't want any more surprises."

And if it's a boy? Aragorn Drysdale has a swashbuckling ring.

"I've just got my doubts about that," he replied.