10/09/2001 11:00PM

Horse and owner defied the odds

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Freedom Crest is a Thoroughbred of modest beginnings who spent the first 16 starts of his life wandering anonymously among California's claimers and allowance population. Through the undying faith and obsessive attention of trainer Richie Baltas, Freedom Crest continued to improve, gaining physical maturity and precious confidence, until he broke through to the big time with a victory last January in the San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita Park.

Then last Sunday, before a national television audience in the $500,000 Goodwood Handicap, dwarfed by Horse of the Year Tiznow and two-time Pacific Classic winner Skimming, Freedom Crest rocked the racing world with an authoritative upset at 39-1. He is now being considered for a run at the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27 at Belmont Park.

It is a compelling story, full of fairy-tale elements and ripe for rags-to-riches hyperbole. But it has to be, just to hold a candle to the saga of Calvin Nguyen, the man who owns the horse.

Nguyen would disagree, deferring to both Freedom Crest and Baltas. "They are the stars, not me," he protests, and perhaps he is right. Without Nguyen, however, neither Freedom Crest nor Baltas would have the patronage to work their miracles. And it would not have taken more than a breath of wind for these three to have missed their intersection and squandered a chance to make history together.

On March 29, 1973, after 15 years of military involvement, two million soldiers on the ground and 58,000 deaths, the last remaining American troops pulled out of Vietnam, leaving behind a country in rubble and a vanquished ally at the mercy of a conquering army.

On April 1, 1973, Calvin Nguyen was born in a farming community on the Mekong Delta, just to the south of Saigon, where North Vietnamese forces would soon raise their flags and proclaiming its new name, Ho Chi Minh City.

Nguyen's father was serving in the defeated South Vietnamese Navy and stationed on shipboard in Guam when the war ended and the Americans sailed for home. As Nguyen tells it, his father could have stayed safely in Guam, under the protection of the United States, and worked through underground channels to reunite his family somewhere abroad. But he didn't. Instead, he went home to Vietnam to rescue his wife and his children, where he was promptly captured, jailed, and given a sentence of indeterminate length in a POW camp.

Nguyen was raised by his mother and her family. In 1982, in the company of his aunt and uncle, the 9-year-old Nguyen boarded a 130-foot fishing boat with about 140 other refugees and set sail for open waters. They were leaving Vietnam behind.

Nguyen's memory of the voyage remains vivid, yet he declines to wax melodramatic. His tiny boat did not founder, as hundreds did. He and his fellow refugees were not hunted down by Communist patrol boats or assaulted by pirates, as thousands of others were.

"I heard some really bad stories, of relatives and friends that made the same trip, but had much greater hardship," Nguyen said.

"We were lucky to land in Malaysia. From there, we were sent to an island off Indonesia, where we waited for about six months, and then we found our sponsors that allowed us to come to America."

As Nguyen told his story, his voice was still cracked and hoarse from the trauma of Freedom Crest's Goodwood Handicap. It's hard work, screaming home a 39-1 shot in the face of two even-money monsters. By comparison, Nguyen made it sound like a walk in the park to travel half way around the world, assimilate a new culture, become fluent in a new language, do well in school, and join with his brother in a successful vitamin sales company in Southern California.

On Sunday it was Nguyen holding the trophy aloft and being toasted in the Oak Tree Directors' Room. The owner was dressed more for Del Mar - very California casual - and most of his pals were down in the grandstand, still dizzy from the win. It was a new experience, especially when it came to questions like, "Will you run in the Breeders' Cup?"

"Amazing," Nguyen said. "The thought of it is just amazing. Richie said let's lean toward it. If he continues to do well, let's do it, but keep everything day-by-day, to make sure he really wants to run back in three weeks."

For Freedom Crest to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Nguyen must pay a $40,000 pre-entry fee on Oct. 15 and a $40,000 entry fee on Oct. 24. He originally claimed the horse, in June of 1999, for $32,000. With the Goodwood, Freedom Crest has banked more than $600,000.

"Honest, I thought we were running for third the other day," Nguyen said. "Now this! I don't know how many more chances I'm going to have, at the level I play this game, to go to the Breeders' Cup. To be a part of it . . . it's hard to imagine. A real Cinderella story."

And a long way from midnight.