08/01/2007 11:00PM

Hard case opens up to Gaines's touch

Charles Pravata/Horsephotos
Carla Gaines

DEL MAR, Calif. - It kind of figures that the best horse Carla Gaines has trained would be young and troubled. Whether around horses, or in her previous life as a counselor to at-risk kids in her native Alabama, Gaines has been the nurturer, trying to get her charges to harness that anger and translate it into something good.

Her soft touch has worked with Nashoba's Key, who is anything but soft. Nashoba's Key, a California-bred daughter of Silver Hawk, guards her stall at Gaines's Del Mar barn with the ferocity of a pit bull. Get near her, and her ears are pinned back in attack mode. A pet, she is not. Yet by showing patience - Nashoba's Key, 4, did not make her first start until January - Gaines and owner Warren Williamson have reaped rewards. Nashoba's Key is unbeaten in five starts - three on turf, two on Cushion Track - and most recently captured the Grade 1 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park.

"She always trained like she had a lot of talent," Gaines said. "But to go from a Cal-bred maiden to a Grade 1 in five races, I can't honestly say I expected that."

On Sunday, Nashoba's Key will try to go 6 for 6 when she runs in the Grade 2, $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack. Her main opponent in that race is expected to be Balance, who won the Grade 1 Santa Margarita at Santa Anita in March but finished behind Nashoba's Key in the Milady and Vanity at Hollywood.

"She's been training unbelievable over the Polytrack," Gaines said. "She's even traveling better over this than the Cushion Track."

Because of Nashoba's Key's aptitude on turf, the $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on turf on Saturday also had been under consideration.

The year-end objective for Nashoba's Key is one of the Breeders' Cup races Oct. 27 at Monmouth Park.

Focusing on the future is something Gaines has practiced with her horses. "I'm lucky that I have very good clients who are good to their horses and give them the time they need," she said.

Gaines tried to do the same thing when counseling kids. Her own life, though, took an unexpected detour.

Although she had been around horses since she was a youth, "I grew up in a society where if you were going to pick a career, horse trainer wasn't one of them," she said.

Gaines, instead, was an academic. She received bachelors and masters degrees in psychology and sociology from the University of Alabama in Birmingham, and initially worked as a counselor for juvenile delinquents.

"It was heartbreaking," Gaines said. "I know this sounds pretentious, but I always wanted to pick a profession where I would help society. My first job was with kids who had been in trouble, abused, and neglected. I had one kid who shot his father, but his father was molesting his sister. He didn't know how to stop the pain.

"After I while, I couldn't take it. I just needed a sabbatical from the cruelty of humanity. I never intended to train. I planned on going back to my career. But I never went back."

Gaines, lithe and wiry, had ridden since she was a child, mostly with hunters. Along with several friends - including the trainer Alice Cohn, whom Gaines has known since junior high - Gaines invested in yearlings that were broken on a farm in Louisiana with the intention of selling them as 2-year-old pinhooks the following spring in Florida.

"My parents were mortified," Gaines said. "They put me through grad school, and here I was traipsing off to Louisiana to train horses."

Through her work in the sales aspect of Thoroughbred racing, Gaines eventually found her way to Northern California, where she continued to dabble in sales while working as an exercise rider on the racetrack. With the backing of Williamson and John Harris, the prominent breeder in California, Gaines took out her trainer's license in 1989.

"Spud," she said, referring to Williamson's nickname, "and John gave me the first two horses I ever trained, and they're still with me."

Gaines moved to Southern California in 1996. Over the years, the stock that comes her way has steadily improved. Among her better horses have been the graded stakes winners Foxysox and Blending Element, and the stakes-winning California-bred Super High.

Being as hands-on as she is, Gaines does not want to be overwhelmed with runners. She is comfortable with the 30 she has in training at Del Mar. In addition to Nashoba's Key, she has 2-year-olds by the sires El Corredor, Fusaichi Pegasus, Hennessy, and Street Cry, a far cry from what was sent to her a decade ago.

"We've just upgraded gradually throughout the years," she said.

Gaines has been known as a high-percentage trainer whose relatively low profile has made her a bettor's delight. Last year at Del Mar, she finished tied for 11th in the standings with seven wins, the same number recorded by Hall of Famers Neil Drysdale, Richard Mandella, and Ron McAnally. She was 7 for 19 in races on the main track.

Gaines finds comfort in animals. Her closest companion might be her trusty black Labrador Coal. Gaines has never married.

"Where I came from, you either had a career or raised a family," she said. "After seeing what people did to their own children, it scared me.

"Horses are a lot kinder than people."