02/16/2006 1:00AM

Imperialism needs a lucky 7


ARCADIA, Calif. - The confluence of 4-year-old Surf Cat and 5-year-old Imperialism in Saturday's San Carlos Handicap at Santa Anita offers a striking contrast in the study of where and when people decide to run a racehorse.

Surf Cat is owned in part by trainer Bruce Headley and his wife, Aase, and they have treated the colt like the crown jewels, exposing him to competition only eight times since his debut 13 months ago and resisting the temptation to hit the road for fame and fortune. Surf Cat has yet to leave Southern California, while counting the Swaps Stakes among his four victories.

"When I get one like this, I've got to be careful with him," Bruce Headley explained after backing off last summer. "I want to make him last."

Imperialism, on the other hand, was already a tough nut to crack when Steve Taub bought him from his Florida connections in early 2004, after 11 starts as a 2-year-old and one race at 3. Under deft handling by Kristin Mulhall, Imperialism immediately established himself as a serious 3-year-old that winter by winning both the San Vicente Stakes and San Rafael Stakes.

Since then, Imperialism has provided Taub with a ticket to nearly every big dance in the land. He has run in the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Super Derby, the Santa Anita Handicap, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Breeders' Cup Sprint. In many of those events, Imperialism was never a factor, but he has done enough to win nearly $900,000.

Significantly, Imperialism is among a group of five horses from the 2004 Kentucky Derby field of 18 that are still racing, and only one of two - Borrego is the other - who are still competing at the top of the game. That, in itself, is an accomplishment.

But Imperialism has more going for him than mere longevity. On his best days, when he is not pitched at the moon, he remains one of the most effective members of his generation at seven to nine furlongs. He also has shown a taste for grass that was hinted at during his earlier Florida career. For Taub and Mulhall, he has tried turf twice - in the Oak Tree Derby and the Hollywood Derby - and was within two lengths of the winner in both races, without much luck in either.

Still, Imperialism must be judged on his overall record, and so far, the jury is still weighing the evidence.

On the one hand, he is the hard-trying, blue-collar gray who finished third in the '04 Derby to Smarty Jones, ran Rock Hard Ten to a nose in the 2005 Strub Stakes, and bagged the Pat O'Brien Handicap last summer at Del Mar off a 5 1/2-month layoff, beating Taste of Paradise in the bargain. He is also the horse who barely got a call in races like the Super Derby, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Cigar Mile.

Steve Taub - car dealer, real estate investor, and veteran horse owner - has been a high-profile defender of Imperialism every step of the way, and never far from his side.

"I'm not a real animal kind of guy," Taub said Thursday morning before heading to Santa Anita to watch Imperialism school. "But in 23 years of horse ownership, he's the only one I've ever had a true relationship with. I've had offers to stand him, of course, and I hate to sound stupid. But I don't care about the economics. I have so much fun with this horse, as long as he's mentally and physically sound, I'll race him."

Too bad more owners don't feel the same way. The game is in dire need of recognizable older stars, although in Imperialism's case, he might have acquired a bigger following without all those losses under the bright lights.

"I don't think we've been overly ambitious," Taub said. "In this business, if you win one of four you're dong very well. Everybody seems to have an excuse when you're not victorious, and we've got ours. But I'm not going to dignify them. Let's just say there were those days we just didn't do well.

"I love to go out and watch him train, and watch Kristin's mind work as she trains him," Taub went on. "They have such a rapport. A few mornings ago they were galloping at Hollywood Park. When I met them at the gap, she said, 'He's pulling my elbows out of their sockets.' It's the kind of thing you like to hear."

Handicappers will note that Imperialism has never lost in three tries at the San Carlos distance of seven furlongs. Those wins include a maiden claiming race at Calder, the San Vicente, and the Pat O'Brien, his only victory of 2005.

So far, this is only a curious footnote, and a far cry from the seven-furlong standard set by Ancient Title, the patron saint of the difficult distance. In seven races at seven furlongs, all stakes events, covering ages 2, 3, 4, and 5, Ancient Title won them all, including the 1975 San Carlos under 128 pounds.

"Ever since he ran in the Cigar Mile last fall, the San Carlos is the race we've been pointing for," Taub said. "He loves Santa Anita, and we think he's at the top of his game right now."