02/28/2002 12:00AM

A great rider, somehow overlooked

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - It is California's premier horse race and has enjoyed that distinction since steeplechase convert Azucar won the inaugural in 1935. Saturday's 65th running of the Big Cap looks to be a wide-open contest, in contrast to the 1972 edition, when Cougar II was the solid 9-10 choice.

Don Pierce was riding Triple Bend in that race, and he had a problem.

"I was concerned he didn't handle the whip," Pierce recalled. "He'd pin his ears back when I hit him and I was determined not to hit him in the Santa Anita Handicap. Yet it was the biggest race of the year. If he was involved in a close finish, how would it look if I didn't use the whip?"

As luck would have it, Triple Bend ran a tremendous race and was in front in the stretch when Cougar II ranged up to within an inch. Pierce's every ounce of instinct told him to reach back and pound his horse, but he coolly continued his hand ride and got the response he wanted. Triple Bend, grateful the whip was sheathed, came again to prevail in a close finish.

It was one of many illustrations of the quality Don Pierce brought to his work at a time when he ranked with the best riders in America. He rode his first winner in June of 1954 at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico with his first mount, and had his last ride at Santa Anita in January of 1985. In the interim he accounted for 3,546 winners, including 351 stakes, of which 34 were hundred-granders. Four of the stakes wins were in the Santa Anita Handicap.

This is Hall of Fame material, and yet somehow Pierce's name has slipped through the cracks. It's half-past time he was recognized. And speaking of recognition, consider his situation in the Santa Anita Handicap of 1962. Rex Ellsworth ran a three-horse entry with Bill Shoemaker on the stakes star Prove It, who had won the Big Cap the previous year.

Alex Maese was on Olden Times, another proven performer. Pierce was on the relatively unknown Physician. It was the custom of the times for jockeys to "save" a percentage of their commissions with the rider of major contenders in major stakes. Shoemaker and Maese decided to save with each other and agreed there was no reason to include Pierce in the arrangement.

Physician ran the race of his career, and as he accelerated to the lead in the upper stretch, sweeping past Prove It, Pierce heard Shoemaker call out: "We're including you in." Pierce, smiling, paid no heed and rode on to win.

The best horse he ever rode? Pierce gives the nod to Hill Rise, winner of the 1965 Santa Anita Handicap.

He was the colt's regular rider in the spring of his 3-year-old season. Aware that his friend Shoemaker was always "shopping" for a better Kentucky Derby mount, Pierce never permitted Hill Rise to win by more than a head or a neck.

Then, in the San Felipe, a prep for the Santa Anita Derby, Hill Rise jumped some tire tracks, enabling Shoemaker and his mount to open up a couple of lengths. Pierce reached back with his whip and Hill Rise quickly drew even with Shoemaker's mount and then went on to win. Sure enough, Pierce lost the mount. Shoemaker relinquished his engagement on Northern Dancer, and agreed to rise Hill Rise in the Kentucky Derby.

Pierce was permitted to ride Hill Rise in the Santa Anita Derby, and with no need for concealment now, let the big colt ramble. He won easily. In the Kentucky Derby, however, Northern Dancer moved first and won by head.

Could Pierce, who knew his horse, have made the difference?

A filly of quality

It takes a good horse to win six consecutive races, and there is considerable evidence that Edward P. Evans's Summer Colony, who will be bidding for a seventh straight victory in Saturday's $200,000 Rampart Handicap, is a good one.

Summer Colony, a homebred 4-year-old filly by Summer Squall, fractured a cannon bone at 2, and trainer Mark Hennig took his time with the rehabilitation process.

In her fifth attempt, she won her maiden last summer in Saratoga and hasn't been beaten since. Last month she flew to California to win the La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita. She has trained well since her return and Hennig is hopeful she can add to her achievements Saturday. He feels she is all quality.