07/25/2002 11:00PM

'Just a lovely horse to train'

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Humberto Ascanio watched in quiet appreciation as Beat Hollow galloped past his observation post on the outside of Del Mar's clubhouse turn. Jose Silva, the man in the saddle, let out a happy yelp as they banked onto the backstretch.

"He does everything easy," Ascanio said. "Everything right. He's just a lovely horse to train."

Pretty is as pretty does. If Beat Hollow is not the best older grass horse in the country, who is? Even racing in the shadow of the Triple Crown colts, Beat Hollow stole a share of the show on Derby day in the Woodford Reserve - defeating With Anticipation and Hap - and then again on Belmont Stakes day in the Manhattan Handicap, when he easily handled Forbidden Apple and Strut the Stage.

Certainly, no older grass horse has had larger audiences cheering him on. When he won at Churchill Downs, there were 145,033 announced in the house (although not all of them were paying strict attention). At Belmont, on the day that War Emblem tried for the Triple Crown, Beat Hollow took his bow before a reported 103,222.

Skipping has yet to deserve such attention, even with his win in the Jim Murray Handicap and his decent third to stablemate Denon in the Whittingham Memorial at Hollywood Park. Right now, he's busy with the voices in his own head.

Skipping is the daffy yin to Beat Hollow's mellow yang. As Beat Hollow cruised through his easy exercise, Skipping was still making his way gradually down the seven-furlong chute from the barn, bucking, kicking and balking at the gaps as Marcario Rodriguez nursed him patiently along.

"I don't know why he's like that," Ascanio said, shaking his head.

"But he can run, so he's worth the trouble."

"There's nothing wrong with him," Rodriguez said later at the barn. "He's just a happy horse."

Skipping and Beat Hollow come from the bottomless barrel of hardcore runners bred and owned by Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farm. Beat Hollow is by Sadler's Wells out of a Dancing Brave mare, while Skipping mixes the blood of Rainbow Quest and The Minstrel. Both horses were nominated to the $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap on Sunday, but only Beat Hollow will take part in the mile and one-eighth event.

From its inception in 1974 through the renewal of 1980, the Read stood alone as a midsummer opportunity for middle distance grass horses, Del Mar's version of the Bernard Baruch. Since 1981, however, it has been reduced to a prep for the Arlington Million, with its date often shifted in reaction to various Million maneuverings.

Chester House, Marlin, Tight Spot, Perrault, and Golden Pheasant all used the Read in one way or another to win the big one in Chicago. This time around, Beat Hollow and Bobby Frankel have obvious designs on the Million, but first they must deal with Redattore, Sarafan, and Night Patrol in the Read.

Bred in the purple and raised like a prince, Beat Hollow can boast a nearly seamless record of eight starts, six wins, and major victories on both sides of the Atlantic. Only thing is, he has been at it a long time - one race at 2, three races at 3, and then more than a year on the bench before commencing his North American career last January.

"He needed time when he got here, and Bobby always gives them time," said Ascanio, who shepherds the Frankel flock while the boss tends to business in Saratoga Springs. "He's not a very big horse - maybe 15-2 or 15-3 - but he's very strong now."

In England, Beat Hollow was trained by Henry Cecil, better known as the man behind Epsom Derby winners Slip Anchor, Reference Point, and Commander in Chief. Beat Hollow was Cecil's best hope for Epsom in 2000, and was even sent postward the favorite. His third-place finish to Sinndar and Sakhee was hardly embarrasing, since they ended up the two best European 3-year-olds of the season.

It takes a very good horse to break through the background noise of the Frankel barn these days. Only the very best need apply. He has 47 horses at Del Mar - including champion sprinter Squirtle Squirt, Santa Anita Handicap winner Milwaukee Brew, American Oaks winner Megahertz, and Strub Stakes winner Mizzen Mast - plus another 30 in his powerful Saratoga division, where Jose Cuevas and Ruben Losa lend a hand.

Among the missing this summer will be Skimming, the two-time winner of the Pacific Classic, and Mizzen Mast, who was knocked out last February with quarter cracks. Both have ankle issues.

"He'll be back," said Ascanio as he knelt to give the inside of Mizzen Mast's left fore a gentle squeeze. "It's doing better already. He's still a young horse. Only 4. One thing Bobby does is give them time. He never gives up on a horse."

And the best ones make it worth the wait.