02/27/2002 12:00AM

Lonesome Glory: Simply the best


ARCADIA, Calif. - Apologies to the Santa Anita Handicap and its contenders. They deserve undistracted attention all week long, as they prepare for the big race on Saturday. But on Monday, something bad happened that requires special consideration. On Monday, Lonesome Glory died.

This is not the kind of news that stops presses, lowers flags, or makes the CNN News crawl. Lonesome Glory was a Thoroughbred who jumped over fences.

Sounds simple, and a little mundane. Perspective must be applied, however, since every solar system has its sun. As far as the world of steeplechase was concerned, Lonesome Glory was Secretariat, Cigar, and Clint Eastwood all rolled into one.

Five times in the 1990's, the people who cared for Lonesome Glory stepped on stage at an Eclipse Awards dinner and accepted a trophy on behalf of their champion. His career almost spanned the decade, from his maiden appearance in May of 1991 to his retirement with a victory at Keeneland in April of 1999.

He won three Colonial Cups, two Carolina Cups, the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, the Temple Gwathmey, the New York Turf Writers and a Smithwick - and if these names don't mean anything to the average racing reader, fret not. Just know that Lonesome Glory won every event worth winning, and won them well.

Kay Jeffords bred and owned Lonesome Glory. Bruce Miller trained him through nine seasons of competition. His rider, in 36 of his 44 starts, was Miller's daughter, Blythe. They are all in mourning for their horse, and will be for a good while, since they expected him to be around for a long, long time.

But some time last Sunday night, in his paddock at the Miller farm in Pennsylvania, he fractured a leg beyond repair. He was euthanized Monday afternoon - a crippled Lonesome Glory was unthinkable - then his remains were sent to South Carolina, where they were laid to rest at the Steeplechase Hall of Fame in Camden.

Blythe Miller did not make the trip. No explanation is necessary. When she answered the telephone on Wednesday afternoon, her voice choked at the sound of Lonesome Glory's name, which is understandable, considering the heights to which they had soared together. Twenty-one times they were victorious.

"He was always so honest," Miller began. "He just wanted to be happy, and do whatever you asked him. Even when he'd get tired at the end of a race he would always give what he had to give."

This is what the rider feels, and what the spectator can only surmise. Imagine the rush of pure power as the big chestnut left his feet, time after time, to hurdle immense barriers of brush, wood, and water. Preceded by a white blaze that beamed like a flood lamp, Lonesome Glory could always be spotted in a crowd. He was the horse everyone came to see.

They knew he was for real very early, at the age of 4, when he made the trip to England's Cheltenham Race Course for the Sport of Kings Challenge in December of 1992. American horses don't normally try such things. Lonesome Glory survived the soft ground and the merciless climb up Cheltenham's finishing straight to win his race by a head.

"I think people were surprised, and maybe in awe of what he might become," Miller said. "It was such a feat for any horse to do that."

Three years later, Lonesome Glory and the Millers returned to England for a steeplechase at Sandown. The purse was a paltry $16,000, but it made no difference to the champ. Miller treasures this race above all the others.

"He did so many great things, but that race was such a challenge," Miller said, adding that the fences at Sandown were much higher and thicker than the fences he jumped in the U.S.

"You can school them, but in a race atmosphere it's different. They can brush through the top of our hurdles. Technically, you want a horse to go as low as they will in the brush, because that's how they make up time. He went over there and adapted, in a race situation. If he tried to brush through those jumps he'd have flipped himself. He could feel the difference, and he jumped better as he went along."

The ultimate pro, Lonesome Glory mastered the Sandown course, including its tricky set of Railway Fences, and won by 11 lengths.

Lonesome Glory was heading back to England for the fabled Cheltenham Hunt Festival in March of 1998 when he injured a muscle in training. Cheltenham's loss. The champion recovered to win the Hard Scuffle Chase at Keeneland that June. Then, in 1999 at the age of 11, won the last of his five Eclipse Award titles with victories in his only two starts. No other horse has won an Eclipse Award in five different years.

"Lonesome Glory was one of those horses that every time you needed him, he was there," said Sean Clancy, the former jump rider who publishes both the Steeplechase Times and the Saratoga Special.

"I tried to beat him," Clancy added. "He was the kind of horse that if you couldn't see him, you knew he was coming. And if you could see him, you knew he was gone."

Gone, but never forgotten.