11/06/2006 1:00AM

A hush along the backstretch


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Michael Matz knelt in the deep straw bedding of stall number four, Barn 43, and picked at the small nick below the bulb of the right front ankle of Round Pond, winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff barely two hours earlier.

"It's nothing, really," said Matz as he dressed and wrapped the wound with the help of two grooms. "Not when you consider."

A couple of barns away, standing in a pool of light thrown from his shed row, Todd Pletcher contemplated his 0-for-17 Breeders' Cup shutout, which included a severe ankle injury that ended the career of Distaff favorite Fleet Indian on a sour note.

"We had horses run well in a lot of races and bring back a lot of money," Pletcher said. "There's no consolation for not winning, but they all came back, and that's the most important thing."

They all came back, except for one. Back in Barn 43, just a few steps from Round Pond, the first stall was empty when it should have been occupied by Pine Island, the 3-year-old filly who entered the gate second choice to Fleet Indian in the Distaff. Then came the moment, as the field reached the backstretch, when Pine Island's left foreleg snapped above the ankle, sending her tumbling to the ground and imprinting forever the 23rd Breeders' Cup World Championships with the sight of her hopeless, dangling foot.

There are other, more palatable images, to be sure, competing for attention, nudging Pine Island delicately aside. Invasor, the horse of horses, proved Bernardini mortal in a stylish Classic. Ouija Board regained her crown as Breeders' Cup queen. And how about Street Sense, channeling papa Street Cry while busting the Juvenile wide open?

These are grand gestures to be cherished, but let there be no doubt. The air went out of this Breeders' Cup the moment Pine Island went down, taking with her young Javier Castellano and driving a spike through the heart of her trainer, Shug McGaughey.

There is no more appreciative big-event crowd than the fans who watch from the stable area at Churchill Downs. These are backstretchers and their extended families, camped out along the outside rails, barbecues in full swing and beers all around, cold weather be damned.

They applaud when the horses emerge from their barns for the procession to the paddock. They cheer favored jockeys during the warm-ups. And when they get a glimpse of action - anywhere between the three-quarter pole to the far turn - they go wild though the race is far from run.

After accompanying Pine Island in the ambulance to the backstretch equipment yard near the top of the stretch, and there waiting while she was mercifully euthanized, McGaughey began the long walk back to Barn 43, and that empty stall.

Backstretchers gave him a wide berth, addressing him only when he passed close by with a brief, "Condolences, Shug," or "Sorry about the filly." They meant it, because they'd been there.

McGaughey, though, was on unfamiliar ground. During a quietly brilliant Hall of Fame career of 30 years, this was the first time he had ever suffered a fatality on such a large public stage.

"It was bad," McGaughey said as he walked. "There was no chance. The bone broke the skin. The poor filly. I'm just glad nothing serious happened to the jockey.

"I've lost horses, sure," he went on. "But never at this level, at something as big as this. The only real concerns I had about the race was her shipping this far for the first time, and whether she could handle the track. Her exercise rider didn't notice anything different, and she's been getting on the filly all her life. Everything seemed to be fine."

At that moment, Paul Saylor was at the Pletcher barn, staring at Fleet Indian, who carried the Saylor silks to six victories in 2006 before pulling up halfway through the Distaff after the ligaments gave way in her left front ankle. Splinted and sedated, Fleet Indian was still a sight for sore eyes, even though the prospect of her multimillion-dollar sale as a broodmare the following Monday was trashed.

"I was at the Breeders' Cup when Go for Wand broke down," Saylor said, referring to the tragedy of the 1990 Distaff. "That happened right in front of me. It made me sick to my stomach, and it still gives me nightmares.

"So she doesn't sell on Monday," Saylor added, nodding toward his mare. "At least she's still with us."

Such is the harsh lesson of perspective, taught in the past by Breeders' Cup fatalities Mr Brooks, Shaker Knit, Mr. Nickerson, Spanish Fern, Landseer, Funfair, and Go for Wand. And now Pine Island.

Michael Matz, all but numbed by the twists of fate in this strange calendar year, remained solemn in the face of a final chapter he did not have to face with his 2006 Derby winner, Barbaro. The colt is still alive after shattering a leg in the Preakness, and is under the ongoing care of Dr. Dean Richardson at Pennsylvania's New Bolton equine hospital.

"Sometimes you just have to wonder what is at work," Matz said as Round Pond relaxed behind him. "A very good friend of mine lives on Pine Island. He called me before the race and said, you know, that looks like the exacta - Round Pond and Pine Island. Watching Shug's filly this week, I couldn't disagree.

"Then later, I find out that at the very moment Round Pond is winning the race, Dr. Richardson has Barbaro out grazing at New Bolton," Matz added. "I only wish Shug's filly could have been that lucky."