06/02/2006 12:00AM

Gregson chose prudence over hype

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Man, how I hate to write that date, the fourth of June, and especially this year, since it lines up with a Sunday.

It was on the evening of Sunday, June 4, 2000, that Eddie Gregson paid a late visit to his South Pasadena office, pulled out a handgun, and shot himself dead. Understanding why he did it is no easier than figuring out why Barbaro broke down. That's racing. That's life.

What is crystal clear is that Gregson is sorely missed by a racing industry badly in need of his wisdom, his compassion, and his horsemanship. He was a modern American original, a man of wealth and accomplishment who embraced the game as if it were a wayward brother needing tough love and constant attention.

There are few issues that go by without this reporter wondering what Gregson would have thought. He lobbied tirelessly for better backstretch living conditions. He sponsored independent studies of surface safety. And he was among the earliest California trainers who dared to publicly suggest that the growing use of permitted medications might weaken not only the breed, but the game itself.

If Gregson were around today, he would get a mighty kick out of the debate over the Triple Crown, and the anguished cries to change the spacing of the three events in the series. He had been there long ago, and in his own way he had tried to change entrenched perceptions.

In 1982 there was no Triple Crown Productions. There was no Visa Triple Crown bonus. There was only the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, three distinct events connected by a well-hyped historical plot line that held if the same horse won them all, he would be hailed as the winner of the Triple Crown.

In the early 1980's, winning the Triple Crown seemed a reasonable goal. The previous decade had produced three, and Spectacular Bid (1979) and Pleasant Colony (1981) gave it a good try before coming up shy in the Belmont. As 1982 dawned, there had been a run of 22 straight Kentucky Derby winners who had marched dutifully down the road to Pimlico two weeks later in order to compete in the Preakness.

Imagine, then, the size of the crater left by the bombshell Gregson dropped after he'd saddled Gato del Sol to upset the 1982 Kentucky Derby. At age 43, he was standing at the pinnacle of the sport, with his movie star mug and dark, curly hair, face to face with ABC icon Jim McKay in the post-race interview and telling him that, no, sorry, Jim, the Derby winner definitely would not be running in the Preakness.

"Nobody asked me, but I wasn't really surprised," said Eddie Delahoussaye, who rode Gato del Sol in the Derby. "Eddie loved his horses. He was always trying to do right by them."

Gato del Sol had run 10 days before the Derby, finishing second in the Blue Grass Stakes. The idea that a trainer would choose to back off after the Derby and point for the Belmont was not, on the face of it, an outrageous strategy. Even today it is considered a viable path (see Bluegrass Cat, bob and John, Steppenwolfer, Jazil, Deputy Glitters), except for the actual winner of the Derby.

"That was the plan all along," said Mark McCreary, one of Gregson's assistants at the time. "Everybody who asked us knew about it beforehand. He was going to run in the Belmont, win, lose, or draw in the Derby. The Preakness was never an issue, at least around the barn."

But, boy, did it become an issue in the sporting press, especially out West. Melvin Durslag of the Los Angeles Examiner called Gato del Sol and the entire Derby field "dogs" and dismissed them out of hand. Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray impugned the courage of both horse and trainer, wondering, "Is it Gato del Sol or Pollo del Sol?"

Pimlico general manager Chick Lang also had plenty of harsh things to say on the subject, but the most vivid expression of his sentiments could be found in the Pimlico stall traditionally reserved for the Derby winner. That's where Lang bedded down a mule.

"We tried to hide all those stories and articles from Eddie, they were so bad," said Dan Eidson, another Gregson assistant at the time. "You'd think they'd be happy that a California horse won the Kentucky Derby, wouldn't you?"

In his way, Gregson was confronting the disconnect between the fundamental realities of training Thoroughbreds and the public relations side of the business. As far as Gregson was concerned, he was exercising the same discretion trainers use when they scratched a horse because of a bad track, or declined to enter a handicap because of a weight assignment deemed too high for the animal's own good.

If Gregson were here he might offer something like this: There is only one thing that will modify the spacing of the Triple Crown events, and specifically the two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness. The winners of the Kentucky Derby - trainer and owners - must just say no. Let this happen two or three times in a row, if such brave souls can be found, and the results will be swift. If the Triple Crown continues to rank as the most important promotional concept in racing, you can bet good money that the Preakness and Belmont will find ways to realign.