06/19/2003 12:00AM

Hazelton expects Classic Appeal to rebound

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Break down a horse race into its fundamental parts, and raw truths emerge. A horse must be trained to go forward. A horse's legs must support intense physical stress. And a horse needs to draw proper breath.

That last one has confounded generations of horsemen.

"You've got tongue ties, figure-eight bits," said Richard Hazelton, who has trained horses since the late 1940's. "You do this, you do that. People don't realize how much trouble you have trying to get horses to breathe right."

Last summer, Hazelton had seen Classic Appeal struggle to breathe long enough. He sent Classic Appeal to the Rood and Riddle clinic in Kentucky for a surgical procedure called a tieback.

Presto, new horse.

Vastly promising at age 3, Classic Appeal's breathing problems made him look like a hanger during the next two seasons. Classic Appeal would make swooping far-turn moves to reach contention in his races, but flatten out in deep stretch. A few starts after the surgery, that pattern changed. Classic Appeal finished off a pair of Hawthorne sprint stakes races this spring like a freight train. He won by 2 1/4 lengths, then by 7 1/4, earning triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures.

The tieback had worked - or so it seemed. Classic Appeal raced flat in an overnight handicap here June 1, and as he comes into the $75,000 White Oak Handicap on Saturday's Prairie State Festival, Hazelton is wondering again if Classic Appeal can breathe easily.

"Probably the most prevalent opinion when you mention a tieback is a negative response," trainer Chris Block said. "A guy will say he did one with success, but by the end of the conversation you find out it didn't hold."

A tieback is just as it sounds, according to Rolf Embertson, a throat specialist at Rood and Riddle. A surgeon sutures back a piece of the arytenoid cartilage in a horse's throat. Under normal circumstances, a nerve is supposed to pull the cartilage from a horse's airway, but the nerve is especially long and can become paralyzed, causing the cartilage to obstruct breathing just when a horse needs it most, during the latter stages of a race.

"It isn't that common," Embertson said of the tieback procedure. "Maybe about four percent of racehorses have the problem."

The tieback is a much more complicated procedure than other common throat surgeries.

"It's a technically demanding procedure, and if you don't do it right, you can really screw it up," Embertson said.

Some horsemen think tiebacks work as little as 10 or 20 percent of the time. Embertson believes experts can achieve a much higher rate. But he acknowledges tiebacks can succeed at first and fail later.

"Sometimes the cartilage isn't strong enough to support the sutures," Embertson said.

Hazelton doesn't think Classic Appeal's tieback failed in his last disappointing start. In fact, he doesn't know what happened, and if Classic Appeal can bounce back to his early season performances, he'll win the six-furlong White Oak.

But when breathing problems arise, they breed uncertainty, even when a last-resort cure like a tieback appears to have turned things around.

"I was so damned proud of those two races at Hawthorne," Hazelton said. "I don't think it was the surgery failing, but that last race took the fight right out of me."

We'll see Saturday whether Classic Appeal can still carry the fight.