09/27/2004 12:00AM

Highs and lows can collide

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Tim Yakteen kicked off his solo training career with a bang Saturday when he sent out Sabiango to win the $200,000 Kentucky Cup Turf at rustic Kentucky Downs.

Nothing less was expected from Yakteen, a 40-year-old former assistant to both Charlie Whittingham and Bob Baffert, who came to this country from his native Germany as a young student of veterinary medicine. For the past 15 years, Yakteen has exposed himself to the best the Thoroughbred game can offer in terms mentors, patrons, and pedigrees, so no one was stunned when the result of the Kentucky Cup Turf hit the wires.

The celebration will have to wait, though. There was no ticker tape parade back at Yakteen's Hollywood Park stable, no popping champagne corks or buckets of beer. A few hours after the proudest moment of his professional life, Yakteen called his family in Germany to share the news and learned instead that his father, Sam Yakteen, was dead.

It was a shock, but not a surprise. The elder Yakteen, just 66, had been suffering from the effects of malignant tumors that had attached themselves to the bones of his back, ribs, and legs.

"The three spots on his vertebrae were what caused the biggest problem," Yakteen said Sunday, just before boarding a plane to Frankfurt. "The cancer was de-mineralizing the bone, and it was very, very uncomfortable. He was in an awful lot of pain. Maybe it was a blessing, the way it worked out."

Yakteen gives his father full credit for setting the wheels of his career in motion.

"He didn't give me a choice," Yakteen said. "He was the one who made me come to California. He just felt that the United States would grant me more opportunities than if I were to stay in Germany. At the time, getting pushed out of the nest wasn't what I thought was necessarily right for me. But as you get older, you realize your parents know a little more than you."

Hussam "Sam" Yakteen was a native of Lebanon who married a German girl and emigrated to her country, where they raised three children. Tim is the youngest.

"My dad worked for the military," Tim said. "He was in the communications field - intelligence, encryption equipment, satellites."

And now his son is a full-fledged Thoroughbred trainer, leaving the security of being a salaried assistant in one of the world's top stables to venture out on his own and face a cold, cruel world filled with unpredictable animals and workers' compensation.

"My father was very instrumental in me taking this step," Yakteen noted. "He thought the timing was right for me. He was very proud that I was man enough to take the step and accept the challenges."

In hanging out his own shingle, Yakteen has entered a training world fraught both with dire problems and widespread opportunity.

In California especially, a recession in racehorse investment has resulted in programs increasingly dependent upon claiming races and claiming stables. Out-of-state corporate ownership of the major racetracks has done little to energize the racing environment, and the homegrown gaming dollars are being stretched thin by competition from American Indian casinos.

At the same time, never before have there been so many high-stakes races available to so few good horses. A trainer willing to travel far and wide has a built-in advantage, as long as he has the horses to fit the bill. Yakteen, an internationalist by nature, accompanied runners to Dubai while working for Baffert, and in 1991 he was deputized for Whittingham in Tokyo when Golden Pheasant won the Japan Cup. No American-trained horse has won the race since.

Sabiango is a fitting horse for ground zero of the Yakteen training story, and 40 is the perfect age.

Like his trainer, Sabiango is from Germany. At age 6, he has finally gotten over the foot problems that prevented him from realizing his true potential. The horse is owned by Monty Roberts, the famed horse handler and successful author, and Sabiango was in Yakteen's daily care earlier this year at Hollywood Park while part of the Baffert stable. When Sabiango won at first asking, taking the Charles Whittingham Memorial last June, Baffert was quick to credit Yakteen.

"The Whittingham finally came out in Tim," Baffert cracked.

"Bob has been great through the whole process," Yakteen said of his former boss. "He couldn't be more supportive."

As for a training career beginning at 40, Yakteen should have no qualms. Whittingham, who died in April of 1999, was 40 when he trained his first stakes winner, the 1953 champion 2-year-old colt Porterhouse.

When it comes to father figures, Yakteen never fails to count his blessings, given the time he spent with Sam Yakteen and Charlie Whittingham. On the morning of Sabiango's Kentucky Cup Turf, Yakteen put in a call to the family home in Germany, where his mother held the phone to his father's ear.

"My mom said he hadn't really been responding that much for the past couple days," Yakteen said. "But I told him how good the horse was doing, and I'm sure he heard me. I think he might have even watched it, or at least knew what happened. I called literally first thing their time Sunday morning, and he had just passed. I missed him by five minutes."

Maybe so. But what counts is the 40 years before that call.