02/09/2007 1:00AM

This lady will leave behind a legacy

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It will come as no surprise, to anyone who knows her at all, that Trudy McCaffery, the daughter of Canadian football icon Fritz Hanson, is not going down without a fight.

Since she burst onto the scene in the early 1990's with good horses like Mane Minister, Nice Assay, and Visible Gold - all owned in partnership with John Toffan - McCaffery has been the bantamweight champion of the best possible racing world. If there is a right side to an issue, you will find McCaffery on it.

From the start, she cared more than most, spreading her compassion to every deserving corner of the business. She can play hardball when necessary, especially when she was raising funds for her youth organization, Kids to the Cup. But she also owns a quality pair of soft kid gloves, and has used them to beneficial effect.

More than anything else, though, McCaffery has spread the message - by word and deed - of the pure delight experienced by close proximity to the Thoroughbred.

"There's more to it than just the winner's circle," she has said more than once. "We've watched some of these horses since they were weanlings, and it's already a joy. The winner's circle just makes it extra special."

McCaffery should know. She's been there enough, but always, she will insist, on the coattails of some remarkable animal. Their names read like an inventory of racing treasure - Free House, Bien Bien, Came Home, Del Mar Dennis, A.P. Assay, and Pacific Squall, just to name a few. Own just one of them in a lifetime and you've caught lightning in a jar. Own them all and you have written a chapter in the history of the game.

Still, McCaffery insists that owning racehorses comes at a steep and serious price, and not merely in terms of training costs and vet bills. From the start, she embraced a moral obligation to the ultimate welfare of the animal, no matter what its economic worth. And to this creed she has held true, as those who have served with her on the boards of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association, the Thoroughbred Owners of California, Tranquility Farm, and the Oak Tree Racing Association can testify.

This is not meant to be a benediction. As these words are written, on Friday afternoon, McCaffery is still at home in Rancho Santa Fe, dealing with the final ravages of a brain tumor diagnosed last year. She tried chemotherapy, but it nearly killed her. So she went cold turkey, opting only for medication that would control the inevitable seizures symptomatic of the malignant growth.

McCaffery knew she was trimming her days, but they would be better days, she figured. And she was right. She played golf as long as she could, went to the races when her spirit was so moved, and kept her friends and family close without dwelling on the rest.

Now precious time is running out, and she knows it. If she can, if it is at all possible, there is a fervent hope that her mind will be filled with the sweetest images of her singular life. Of bounding over fences as a girl in Calgary aboard prize-winning hunters and jumpers. Of standing in a Kentucky field, surrounded by her mares and foals. Of the blaze-faced chestnut Bien Bien winning the San Juan Capistrano and then his son, Bienamado, doing the same.

Let her savor once again some of the best days that did not end up in the winner's circle, ever proving her point. Of Bien Bien just missing to Kotashaan in the Breeders' Cup Turf, and of Free House, wearing a smudge of McCaffery's red lipstick on his white nose, losing the Preakness by a bob to Silver Charm in a three-way photo with Captain Bodgit.

It was on the Pimlico backstretch, in the hours after that incredible 1997 Preakness, that Trudy McCaffery displayed her truest colors. Though emotionally drained, McCaffery still managed to fizz with the energy of a giddy fan.

"Was that the most amazing race you've ever seen?" she demanded.

No one argued. And no one blinked when McCaffery suddenly broke away from her beloved Free House, first to console trainer Gary Capuano and praise his work with Captain Bodgit, then to confront Silver Charm himself, trade compliments with his owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, and tease trainer Bob Baffert with good-natured sportsmanship, promising that they would still need to deal with Free House at the Belmont if they wanted to win the Triple Crown.

"Of all our horses, he was the one who gave me the most joy," McCaffery said of Free House, winner of the Pacific Classic, the Santa Anita Handicap, and the Santa Anita Derby. "He made me proud, and he made me laugh."

Free House died in July of 2004 after an accident at Vessels Farm in Bonsall, Calif., where he had retired to stud. When it happened, McCaffery said, "I felt like I'd lost a son."

Free House is buried at Vessels, beneath a stone marker near a pond and two cottonwood trees. In an ultimate tribute, McCaffery scattered some of her father's ashes over the same consecrated ground.

"And that's where I'll be, too," she insisted not long ago. "Right there with the two most important men in my life."