11/26/2008 1:00AM

Habaya helps barn recover from loss

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The plan was simple and made perfect sense. Habaya, the 2-year-old ingenue, would warm up the Friday afternoon crowd at Hollywood Park with her best possible effort in the $100,000 Miesque Stakes. Then, about an hour later, the old man Shakis would take the stage for his final performance in the $400,000 Citation Handicap, wave to the crowd, and ease gracefully into retirement.

At least, that's what Kiaran McLaughlin had in mind.

Instead, cold racing reality slapped the stable in the side of the head. Shakis, the 8-year-old battler and two-time winner of the Bernard Baruch, did not make it past last Friday's final pre-Citation workout. During the course of a routine breeze over the Hollywood Park Cushion Track surface, he fractured a hind leg so severely that euthanasia was the only humane option.

Losing a stable star like Shakis is tough. Losing one on a road trip is even more difficult to swallow. Neal McLaughlin, the trainer's brother and top assistant, was on the scene at Hollywood when it happened, which meant the horse was in familiar hands. Still, back in Florida, the head man had that helpless feeling wash over him, when bad things happen to family out of reach.

"We're fortunate that we don't have to deal with that kind of thing very often," McLaughlin said. "But it was terrible. He'd been with us for the last two years, and he was kind of the barn pet. We felt very good about his condition, and Neil was right there when he breezed so well the time before."

Shakis made his debut at Deauville in the summer of 2002 for Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Farm and trainer John Hammond. At the end of his 4-year-old campaign, he was sent to Dubai for three winters, and then finally to McLaughlin at the ripe old age of 7. Shakis raced 12 times in the States, with four stakes placings in addition to his brace of wins in Saratoga's Baruch.

Even without the classy presence of Shakis, the Citation comes up an entertaining event. Whatsthescript, winner of the American Handicap over the course last summer, will be facing Oak Tree Mile winner Hyperbaric, Knickerbocker Handicap winner Formal Decree, and a pack of animals in very good form, including Galantas, Ferneley, Becrux, and Rebellion. Toss in major stakes winners Medici Code and Proudinsky, both dangerous on their best days, and the table is set for a very salty mile and a sixteenth.

As far as Neal McLaughlin is concerned, they all would have been in trouble. Coming out of the Breeders' Cup Mile, when he was a tangled 11th, "Shak" was sitting on ready.

"In all the time I've been with him, he'd never been going better," Neal said. "But sometimes, that's when it can happen. They get to feeling so good they might overexert themselves. There was no question we were ready to do everything possible to save him. I remember Sheikh Hamdan spending what must have been $100,000 to save a horse that had been running for $20,000. But when I saw how bad the sesamoids and pastern were, I knew it would be impossible.

"I'm just glad I'd been here to watch him work the time before and train in between," Neal added. "I knew exactly what kind of shape he was in and how he was doing, so there's nothing I would have done different."

A big effort by Habaya in the one-mile Miesque could provide momentary distraction from the loss of Shakis, and no one should be surprised if it happens. A neat bay package with a face that looks like it was hit with a pair of cream pies, Habaya was part of a wave of talented Shadwell 2-year-olds unveiled this year by the McLaughlin stable.

"She's kind of a first for Shadwell, in that she was born and raised in Kentucky and then sent to Dubai to be broke," McLaughlin said from his Florida base. "Sheikh Hamdan decided to send her right back to America, so she came to us in May. She's got a great mind, for a Storm Cat, and she did everything right."

She's also got a pretty good pedigree for the Hollywood grass. Her dam, Golden Apples, earned a turf mare championship in 2002 with a record that included a near miss in the Matriarch, run then at nine furlongs.

Habaya made a winning debut at Belmont on Sept. 25, then came back two weeks later to finish second in the Jessamine Stakes at Keeneland. Laragh, the winner, finished a close third in the subsequent Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Habaya, on the other hand, passed the Breeders' Cup, which would have been her third race in 29 days.

"She acts like a mile might even be a little short for her," Neal McLaughlin said. "She's just kind of getting settled into a groove at that point. That's why a little rain out there can't hurt. Might make the course just tiring enough to bring a few back to her."

Win or lose on Friday, Habaya figures to be a major player in the McLaughlin stable for 2009.

"We're looking forward to a big summer and fall for her next year, with a race like the Queen Elizabeth very much a possibility," Kiaran McLaughlin said. "But that's getting ahead of ourselves. You never really know what might happen."