05/12/2005 12:00AM

Iron horse in era of fragility


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is probably not quite time to lower the flags at Hollywood Park to half-staff and issue the black armbands.

Even though the place is for sale, maybe the offers will be so insultingly low that the folks at Churchill Downs Inc. will shift gears and decide not to scrap 67 years of magnificent racing history.

Among the recent achievements that would end up bulldozed by the sale of Hollywood Park is the Los Angeles Times Sports Journalism Workshop, now in its third year. Co-hosted by the newspaper and the racetrack, the workshop offers highly motivated college students a three-day package of seminars, guest lectures, and critical evaluations.

For purposes of this exercise, the sport of choice is horse racing. From the grandstand to backstretch, this year's crop of 26 workshop students will get a full dose of the game. If they're lucky, they might even get to meet John Shirreffs.

The workshop ends Saturday with the runnings of the $150,000 L.A. Times Handicap at six furlongs and the $350,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap at 1 1/2 miles, named in honor of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist. Given the current climate, Saturday could also mark the final runnings of the Times Handicap and the Murray Memorial, so get it while you can.

Eduardo Inda is ready, and so is his horse T.H. Approval, who comes into the Murray fresh from a 1 1/2-length victory in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap at Santa Anita barely four weeks ago.

There was a time when such a move would have been no big deal. Going from 14 furlongs to 12 furlongs with a month in between presented no particular problem, as long as the horse was willing and the trainer had faith in his own ability.

These days, running a horse twice in a month seems grounds for a call to the SPCA, except during the Triple Crown, which has its own reality. T.H. Approval, a 4-year-old son of Canadian champion With Approval, has emerged as a throwback, some sort of dinosaur hatched from a distant time when the nickname "iron horse" was reserved for Thoroughbreds who could run more than a dozen times a year.

Since his debut in January of 2004 as a 3-year-old, T.H. Approval has run 17 times in 17 months. For most of that period he flew blissfully below the radar, requiring seven races before winning and a full year before Inda deemed him ready for stakes competition.

"He was green," said Inda, a 62-year-old native of Santiago, Chile. "Very green and very playful, like a little kid. You look at his races and he was all over the place."

The light finally clicked on last fall at Hollywood Park, when T.H. Approval won back-to-back allowance races at 10 and 12 furlongs. This winter at Santa Anita, he was the only horse to compete in the 10-furlong San Marcos, the 12-furlong San Luis Obispo, the 12-furlong San Luis Rey, and the climactic San Juan Capistrano. Soundness does not seem to be an issue.

"Lucky, and very, very sound," Inda said. "Almost every horse can look like they got a suspicious ankle, a knee, something. This horse looks like he's never run. Very clean.

"But he's light, and kind of small all over," Inda went on. "Nicely put together for a small horse. And very light on his feet."

T.H. Approval is named for his owner and breeder, the veteran Japanese horseman Tadahiro Hotehama, who ran second in the 1994 Breeders' Cup Mile with Johann Quatz and won the 1991 Vanity Handicap at Hollywood with Brought to Mind. They were trained by Ron McAnally, whose assistant at the time was Eduardo Inda.

On his own since 1995, Inda gained national note with his handling of Riboletta, champion mare of 2000, as well as major stakes winners Toga Toga Toga, India Divina, and Borodislew. The highlight of Inda's quarter-century with McAnally was the John Henry era (1980-1984), although there were names like Bayakoa, Paseana, Tight Spot, Ibero, and Olympio to keep them busy when John wasn't around.

McAnally trained T.H. Approval's dam, Potrichal, as well as her full sister Potridee, winner of the 1994 Vanity. Inda knew them well.

"In Argentina, Potrichal won the Copa de Plata, which is a good race," he said. "But here, she was a plodder. She needed a mile and a quarter, mile and a half. Her sister, though, was a nice filly, with more speed, more body, and a beautiful head."

T.H. Approval gets a little bit from both sisters, plus his gray coat from his sire. Now he is making his own name, and in order to prove the San Juan was no fluke, T.H. Approval must deal with Exterior, who finished second that day, and old Sarafan, who was around when Jim Murray covered the L.A. Rams. Inda respects them both.

"My horse likes Hollywood," Inda said, referring to T.H. Approval's 3-for-5 local mark, "and the best thing is he has some speed, where there doesn't look like much speed in this race. All I know is he came out of the San Juan bouncing and playing. We watched him close, and he is ready."