02/07/2008 1:00AM

Looking ahead the way to go

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ARCADIA, Calif. - By now the reader understands that anything written about horse racing at Santa Anita Park is highly speculative. The voting patterns of the schizophrenic community are more easily predicted.

There have been assurances, however, that the racing surface work being done on Thursday morning - as this was written - will allow competition to resume by Saturday at the latest. Beyond that, hopes are high that racing can continue uninterrupted come hell or high water (hell being preferred to high water) through the end of the meet on April 20.

Provincially minded Californians will be quick to point out that the same cannot be said for New York, where racing could be suspended indefinitely after Feb. 14, when the temporary extension of the New York Racing Association's franchise expires. But this is certainly no time to gloat. In terms of the overall health of the business, what's bad for New York is bad for California, and never have America's two richest racing jurisdictions been in such concurrent turmoil. Chaos reigns on all fronts, as owners, trainers and jockeys face the brutal fact that they are not the masters of their own fortunes. It is the state governments, racing boards, and racing associations that call the ultimate tune.

Gotta have faith, though. And so on to Saturday at Santa Anita, where the Santa Maria Handicap and the Las Virgenes Stakes will be joined by the wandering San Antonio, a handicap for older runners originally scheduled to be run last Sunday, when rain rendered the mutant Cushion Track surface unusable in what would have been its final voyage.

Topweighted Student Council probably would not have run anyway. His trainer, Vladimir Cerin, was ready to scratch even before the plug was pulled on the original San Antonio program.

"It's so easy to get a horse injured when everything's perfect," Cerin said Thursday morning. "When the track's against you, it's better to just wait. There's plenty of racing. We race 12 months a year, and we miss very few races. So when something like this happens, just make a plan and go on to the next step."

In the face of the 11 lost racing days during the current Santa Anita meet, Cerin's serenity was refreshing. Trainers are by nature a tightly wrapped breed, control freaks in an unpredictable world, prone to furrowed brows and dark mumblings even when things go right. For Cerin, who is 53, rising above the madness is a matter of psychological health.

"I've been doing this 28 years," he said, "and I'd like to do it for another 28."

Cerin also admits to having the undeniable advantage of his very own horse-wise angel, riding a shoulder, keeping his feet on the ground. A year and a week have gone by now since the death of his wife, the accomplished equestrian Kellie Cerin, but don't ever suggest to Cerin that she's gone.

"I talk to her all the time, about everything," Cerin said. "Yesterday was probably the most I've talked to her ever. I took our sons snowboarding. It was just a fun day."

In the face of such moments, little things like making a race this week or next tend to retreat quietly into the background. Still, Cerin is in the business to win races, and Student Council has already given him some of his greatest moments, including an upset of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar last summer.

From the beginning, Student Council was a late-developer. Neil Howard, who trained the horse for breeder W.S. Farish, waited until Student Council was 4 before trying him against graded stakes company. At 5, in his first start for owner Ro Parra and Cerin, the son of Kingmambo won the Pacific Classic. He followed that with a victory in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, off Cerin's training, while running in the name of Parra's Midwest trainer, Steve Asmussen.

Then came Student Council's eighth-place finish in the $2.2 million Japan Cut Dirt, last Nov. 24. It was his first poor effort in nearly a year.

"The trip really seemed to stress him out," Cerin said. "He came back covered in hives, really worn out."

Before even thinking about putting Student Council back into training, Cerin prescribed a series of sessions in his hyperbaric chamber - a highly pressurized, non-invasive oxygen treatment that accelerates tissue healing - located at his farm near Santa Anita.

"We put him in the chamber 10 or 11 times," Cerin said. "His hives disappeared. He started to feel really good, just jumping out of his skin. He looks even better than before. His joints are tighter - it doesn't take him any time to warm up at all. I think in addition to helping him recover from the trip, it seems to have speeded up his immune response. He acts rejuvenated and regenerated."

In making his 6-year-old debut in the San Antonio, still in possession of both testicles, Student Council is at an age considered to be dotage by modern standards. The handsome bay may need the San Antonio to be at his best for the Santa Anita Handicap next month, but his trainer is convinced there is a lot more of the story to tell.

"The Thoroughbred racehorse quits maturing at the age of 7," Cerin said. "Maybe this will be his best year."