05/29/2001 11:00PM

Mangurian taking last shot at Eclipse

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Time is running out for Harry Mangurian Jr.

North America's leading breeder the past two years and a prominent figure in the industry for more than three decades, Mangurian has yet to win an Eclipse Award, though his homebred horses continue to record accomplishments.

Mangurian's latest triumph came in the Grade 1 $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on Memorial Day, captured in dramatic fashion by the 56-1 Exciting Story.

Mangurian is phasing out his racing and breeding operation. Where once he owned some 850 horses, he is now down to 75. The broodmare band, which at one time numbered 315, was sold in dispersals, along with other stock, that realized $30 million. This is the last season he'll own 2-year-olds, so if it is meant for him to be honored by racing with a cherished Eclipse statuette for raising good horses, it's now or never.

He is a commercial breeder who breeds only to his own stock, and who races only the horses who are injured or are in some way unsuitable for the sales ring. Exciting Story is a case in point. The 4-year-old son of the Devil's Bag stallion Diabolo was to go on the block at a 2-year-old sale, and with his pedigree and a lively workout he might brought $100,000 or more. Instead, he pulled a hamstring and was withdrawn from the sale.

Exciting Story was well-named. He's never taken the easy way. As a 2-year-old, racing in Canada's prestigious Grey Stakes, he won off by more than eight lengths, only to be disqualified for interference on the first turn. The loss was bad enough, but it was overshadowed by another incident. An opponent stepped on him and severed the tendon sheath of a hind leg. Exciting Story almost died, and personnel at the veterinary clinic in Guelph, Ontario, expressed doubt he would ever race again.

"He was out of action about eight months," trainer Mark Casse said, "and it took him a few races to come around again. I brought him to New York last November for the Fall Highweight and he ran pretty well to be second. But then he returned to Aqueduct for the Gravesend and a horse jumped on the hind leg again. Yes, the same leg that underwent surgery."

A second operation and several months of recuperation followed.

Incredibly, Exciting Story returned to competition better than ever. He just missed in a stakes at Woodbine, in Toronto, where Casse makes his headquarters, and then won a stakes, flashing Beyer Figures substantially higher than he had earned before. Casse, who is also general manager of the Mangurian racing and breeding operations, decided to send him to Belmont for the Met Mile.

"I'm not going to tell you that I was confident he'd win," Casse said. "But I felt he'd run well and was surprised at the price. Patrick Husbands helped him with a fine ride. He's been Canada's leading jockey the past two years and has a lot of confidence in this horse."

Casse, like Mangurian a Floridian, would like Exciting Story to have a run this fall at the Breeders' Cup Mile, though Exciting Story's experience at grass racing is limited.

"When he was coming back from his first surgery," the trainer said, "I put him on the turf course and he did fairly well. I'll try to find a mile race on the grass at Woodbine for his next start, and if it goes well he could have a shot at the $1 million Atto Mile in early September. His sister was a graded stakes winner on turf and we feel he'll be equal to the challenge."