03/19/2009 11:00PM

Gosden looks to make more memories


ARCADIA, Calif. - Sunday's running of the Santa Ana Handicap at Santa Anita marks the 25th anniversary of one of those days you try hard to forget. I've tried and I can't.

For its running of March 18, 1984, the Santa Ana was a Grade 1 event, which meant every good middle-distance turf mare in California was present and accounted for. Favored L'Attrayante, a French and Irish Guineas winner, was one of Allen Paulson first big-ticket purchases. Royal Heroine was making her first start since beating the boys in a division of the Hollywood Derby. Avigaition was the disqualified first-place finisher in the Yellow Ribbon Invitational. High Haven had won the Santa Maria Handicap at the meet, and Sweet Diane had taken the La Canada.

The longshot Brindy Brindy led the field into the first turn, closely pursued by High Haven and Avigaition. Then, in a frightening blur, High Haven snapped a leg, Royal Heroine fell over High Haven, and Sweet Diane tumbled head over heels when she hit Royal Heroine.

High Haven was euthanized and Sweet Diane snapped her neck on impact. Avigaition and Bill Shoemaker went on to win the race, then pulled up on the clubhouse turn with the other survivors. Shoemaker said later he felt sick at the sight of the two mares down and the other bleeding from a leg wound, but at least was relieved to see that his fellow jockeys - Fernando Toro, Ray Sibille, and Laffit Pincay Jr. - were alert and moving their limbs.

Back at his barn, an ashen John Gosden, stripped of his coat and tie, watched intently as a trembling Royal Heroine was administered to by her vet. The hind leg wound, caused by a flailing hoof from one of the other mares, was of primary concern.

"I could see into her stifle joint," Gosden recalled this week from his home in Newmarket. "The whole thing had opened up."

Both Royal Heroine and Toro, her rider, needed some time off to mend, but by May they were intent on a comeback. Gosden circled the June 17 Inglewood Handicap at Hollywood Park for Royal Heroine's return.

"Fernando hadn't ridden any races yet, but he came out one morning to ride her in a work," Gosden recalled. "It was a misty morning at Hollywood. There was dew on the turf. She'd worked beautifully, five-eighths, and she was pulling up, coming around in front of the kitchen there where we'd watched them. She saw another horse walk out onto the course. She half-jinked, slid, and she was down again."

This was almost too awful to believe. Gosden went on with the story.

"Well, she got up, he got up, and I asked Fernando, 'Are you all right?' 'Yes,' he said, 'but I'd like to try that again.' "

Royal Heroine went on to win four stakes that season, including the Breeders' Cup Mile and the Matriarch, and finish second to Horse of the Year John Henry in the Arlington Million. Together with Gosden's first champion, Santa Anita Handicap winner Bates Motel, Royal Heroine provided a fitting historical bookend to Gosden's grand return to Santa Anita last fall to win the Breeders' Cup Classic with Raven's Pass.

In between, Gosden won the 1997 Epsom Derby with Benny the Dip and lost, by a long way, the 1986 Kentucky Derby with Bay Shore Stakes winner Zabaleta. Now, in the wake of the victory by Mafaaz in the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes last Thursday night at England's Kempton Race Course - with the winner receiving an invitation to Louisville - it looks as if Gosden finally might be able to dust off all that valuable experience he gained long ago at Churchill Downs.

"What do you mean . . . me putting a sprinter in there for Ferdinand and Whittingham?" Gosden said, recalling the 1986 Derby with a laugh. "Charlie mused one day that Ferdinand needed a good, strong pace. 'Charlie,' I said, 'I'm your man. We're one-turn milers at top whack. The only thing we can do is let him roll.' "

And Zabaleta rolled, chasing Groovy through a 1:10.20 three-quarter fraction, equaling the fifth fastest in Derby history, and sucking favored Snow Chief along for the ride. Groovy stopped to finish last, Zabaleta came home 12th and Snow Chief was 11th, while Ferdinand and Shoemaker won by 2 1/4 lengths to give Whittingham his first Derby, at age 73.

"I have to say I enjoyed the dinner afterwards," Gosden added. "But then, I didn't have the favorite."

Here it must be noted that from the start of Gosden's California sojourn, Whittingham had taken the young Englishman under his wing as a kindred spirit. By the time Gosden returned to his native land, in 1988, the two men had plenty of stories to share, including a road trip to Florida two years before Ferdinand's Derby. Right off the plane, there was a late night visit to the hotel bar, where a few local fans were unwinding. Gosden, who appreciates all things operatic, recalls the following conversation:

Man at bar: What do you guys do?

Whittingham: I'm a racehorse trainer.

Man at bar: Yeah? You ever won the Kentucky Derby?

Whittingham: No, I haven't.

Man at bar: Then you ain't no racehorse trainer.

"Charlie nailed the guy," Gosden said. "Head-butted the bugger, and we got out of there. After he won the Derby I asked him, 'You think you'll go pick that guy up off the floor in Florida now?' "