04/11/2004 11:00PM

Here, a full house isn't good

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Mike Costello, the president of United Puett starting gates, went to bed in Louisville, Ky., on the evening of May 1, 1981, safe and warm in the knowledge that there would be a field of 20 in the Kentucky Derby the following day, and that his six-stall and 14-stall beauties were ready to do the job.

Then he woke up to a field of 21.

Last-minute legal maneuvering by the owners of Flying Nashua were a success. The 20-horse rule, instituted after the 23-horse stampede in the 100th Derby of 1974, had been temporarily stayed. Flying Nashua got to run - although he was remanded to the 21-hole - but before he did, Costello and his crew had to do some fancy footwork to make it work.

"We had to use two 'fourteens,' " said Costello, whose company is based in South Salem, N.Y. "But we had two different sets of springs, so one gate was faster than the other. We were adjusting springs while they were playing 'My Old Kentucky Home.' "

This is probably more information than a trusting sports fan needs to know. The idea that all the starting gates open at the same time is one of those sacred givens, like four legs per horse and eight furlongs to a mile.

Suffice to say that Costello's technicians got the two gates synchronized in time for the running of the 1981 Derby, and that all 21 - including Flying Nashua - left when the bell rang. But from the perspective of the company president, it was a day of considerable tension - and not just in the gate springs.

For the Derby, Churchill Downs will have back-up gates - as well as back-up tractors - for both the 14 and the six-stall auxiliary, which normally serves as the training gate during morning hours. Costello said he has never had a starting gate malfunction on Derby Day.

"Thank God, we've been blessed," he said. "But we have a strict policy of preventive maintenance, and we approach every day and every race with the same importance. The gate always has to work."

The subject of starting gates pertains because, for the first time since 1984, it appears a sure thing that there will be 20 horses in the 130th Kentucky Derby, to be run on May 1, which means a body in every one of the United Puett stalls.

In the 22 runnings under an iron-clad, injunction-proof rule, there have been two fields of 20 and six fields of 19. The rest of the time, the issue of maximum field size was settled by natural attrition, or by the judgment of owners and trainers who decided their young 3-year-olds would be better served without participation in a modern version of the Oklahoma Land Rush.

The sight of 20 horses funneling breakneck to the first turn at Churchill Downs - like a theater crowd rushing to a single exit - can make strong men avert their eyes. Only the very fast, or the very lucky, tend to survive. Still, year after year, owners and trainers try their hardest to make the field, no matter how crowded. This could be because owners and trainers mostly watch from seats in the stands.

Hands are wringing in a number of Derby camps this spring, sitting on talented colts who have not earned enough money to make the final starting grid - at least so far. Whether or not horses such as Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, Pro Prado, or Mustanfar can squeeze in at the 11th hour remains to be seen.

But be careful what you wish for, goes the warning. You might get it. A berth in a 20-horse Derby field is a ticket to chaos. Ask anyone who has been there. Better yet, ask Hall of Famer Eddie Delahoussaye. He was there when the Derby was at its free-for-all best.

Between 1981 and 1984, the Derby drew fields of 21, 19, 20, and 20. As one of only two jockeys to ride in all four (the other was Laffit Pincay), Delahoussaye won the Derbies of 1982 and 1983, and came within three-quarters of a length of winning in 1981 as well, aboard Woodchopper.

"In a field that big, it's when horses hit the half-mile pole and go into that far turn where the trouble really starts," Delahoussaye said. "Sure, you can have a little problem in that first turn. But it's that last turn when the racing starts for some - and when the racing stops for others.

"That's where I had my trouble on Woodchopper," Delahoussaye went on. "I was blocked, I was bumped, and I had a lot of horse. Eventually I got through at the head of the stretch, but it was too late."

If it can happen to Delahoussaye, it can happen to anyone. Bad luck trumps a good horse and a good rider almost every time. And no jockey is immune to a sudden case of Derby nerves, especially when confronted by what might be a once-in-a lifetime field of 20, surrounded by 130,000 screaming fans.

"In the Derby, even great riders will ride a bad race," Delahoussaye said. "The adrenalin starts flowing. They get excited. It's the Derby, and it's only once a year. If you're not cool going in there and cool coming out of that gate, you are going to make mistakes. And don't expect a second chance."