08/31/2004 11:00PM

Hero today, gone tomorrow


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Photographers would make the worst horse trainers. They fall in love with all of them - a noble and useful trait when capturing horses on film, but sometimes a curse when it comes to training them.

Wednesday morning was beautiful. The sun was out for a change. The air had a crisp, fresh feel. The pressure of the Travers was long gone. Mornings like this are becoming scarce with only one week left at Saratoga.

Photographer Barbara Livingston was at the trunk of her car, fighting back tears.

"There goes this morning," Livingston said. "It was so pretty out here, too. Simon rode by, his shirt was blowing. There was a horse in front of him, and I thought, 'Well I guess I'm not supposed to get his picture today.' "

It would be her last chance - at least on the racetrack.

She was speaking of the venerable New York-bred Gander and exercise rider Simon Harris, who have been doing morning exercises together for 4 1/2 years. Moments after the renovation break on the main track, Gander had set off on his final breeze in preparation for his race Monday. The race was designed to tighten him for the Empire Classic in the fall, the last race before his retirement. Trainer John Terranova was at the rail with his stopwatch; the breeze was like clockwork.

"Did what I always did," said Harris, three hours later from the jocks' room, where he works as a valet. "Warmed him up back to the half-mile pole, jogged him off to the wire, started my gallop, went to the pole fine, broke off like I usually do; he was real relaxed on his own. John told me I went three-eighths in 36 1/5 so I was hitting 12's. I even said to myself leaving the three-eighths pole, 'Man, he's got a hold of me more than he usually does, he's really going to breeze good.' He switched leads and went about three jumps and boom. It was like blowing a tire."

Gander had broken down. After 60 starts, with more than $1.8 million bankrolled and in the middle of his seventh season, the wheels had finally come off. Harris hauled on the reins like he's never had to do. Just stay on your feet, son. Just stay on your feet. Don't fight me, son, but fight the urge to let it go and fall in a heap.

Livingston gasped.

"I saw Simon stand up," she said. "I was hoping he was trying to miss a goose on the track or something."

Her eyes said she knew it was no goose.

"Everyone says I pulled him up quick, but it felt like I was never going to do it," Harris said. "It was hard for me to pull him up, he was so lame. I thought he was going to go down. I was praying and hoping when I hit the ground that I didn't see something through the skin. When I got down, he had the leg up so I knew which one. I tried to hold onto it until the ambulance came."

Terranova and his wife, Tonja, ran down the track and climbed in the ambulance with the horse who had done more for them than any other horse they had ever known. Owned by Gatsas Thoroughbreds, Gander won six stakes, including the 2001 Meadowlands Cup, and took them to the Breeders' Cup twice. He finished second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Woodward and was third in the Whitney, Woodward, Donn, and Saratoga Breeders' Cup. With one wrong step, he was fighting for his life.

Back at the barn, an hour later, Gander was hopping around his stall trying to learn how to maneuver on three legs. He spun trying to get comfortable, nibbling on straw while Tonja Terranova kept watch. X-rays revealed a broken bone in his pastern. Straight across and operable. It won't be easy, but Gander might find a field to live in one day - there's one picked out in New Hampshire already. He was set to have surgery this week.

This was not the way it was meant to end for Gander and Harris.

"It's tough to lose him and never get on him again," Harris said. "I would liked to have had one day where I could have prepared for it - 'I'm never going to ride you again.' Maybe stay on him for 45 minutes, an hour that day. You have to enjoy these animals day by day because you never know."

Anybody who has stayed the trip in this game has learned this painful lesson. Harris came from Ireland in 1992. His friend and fellow valet Snooks Miller gave him some advice shortly after he started getting on horses and working in the jocks' room.

"Snooks said it to me years ago, 'Every time they run, it's like a man going to war. They honestly don't know if they're going to come back,' " Harris said. "When Snooks gave me that analogy, I thought that he was being a little severe, but when you think about it, it's probably the truth. Not as bad, but at one point they're in the air and all that pressure comes down on that first leg. It's no way to explain it."

For photographers, exercise riders, or anybody.