03/20/2008 11:00PM

New Mexico's version of Alydar


They all lose. At least, that's what the old-timers say. Man o' War, Gallant Fox, Native Dancer, Secretariat, Citation, Count Fleet, Dr. Fager, Cigar - all of them seemed invincible, except for those rare times they lost.

In our time, only Personal Ensign sustained her excellence throughout a meaningful number of starts to retire unbeaten for life. And because she did it at such an exalted level, she will always be the standard against which other streaking demons are measured.

That is why, for better or worse, the 14-race winning streak of the New Mexico megastar Peppers Pride must be taken with a grain of salt. The circuit on which she competes is entertaining, healthy, and brimming with tradition. But New Mexico has never been confused with New York or Southern California, except perhaps on the slopes above Taos or the galleries of Santa Fe.

Still, 14 races and 14 wins in any context must be praised. Peppers Pride is an iron lady. She has won her races, mostly sprints, by both blowouts and by narrow margins. She has earned a respectable $756,665. Since her debut at Ruidoso on July 16, 2005, she has built a reputation based on stalking speed and a relentless finish that unspools each time like clockwork.

Now owner Joseph Allen, trainer Joel Marr, and jockey Carlos Madeira are back for more, celebrating Easter Sunday with the 2008 debut of the 5-year-old version of Peppers Pride. The setting is Sunland Park for the $100,000 Sydney Valentini Handicap, a one-mile event for New Mexico-bred fillies and mares that was named for a popular and dedicated former jockey agent, racetrack TV personality, and racing commission official.

The Jockey Club tally of the New Mexico foal crop of 2003 was 725. Two of them were Peppers Pride and Theregoesdancer. And were it not for Peppers Pride, they might be writing songs and telling tales about Theregoesdancer.

Instead, she has become an equine version of the Washington Generals, or the Minnesota Vikings. She is the Alydar to the tenacious Affirmed dwelling in the heart of Peppers Pride. Seven times Theregoesdancer has tried to beat Peppers Pride and seven times she has lost, although once the margin was a nose, once a neck, and once a mere half-length.

The 2007 version of the Sydney Valentini was win number nine in the Peppers Pride streak. That day, Theregoesdancer finished an unusually poor sixth, a far cry from her customary hard-trying performance. Under trainer Terry Walker, Theregoesdancer ran up a record of 3 wins and 6 seconds in 15 starts, but for Sunday's running of the Valentini she will be making her first start for trainer Jimmie Claridge.

"I think the only problem with my filly was that she was born the wrong year," Claridge said Friday morning. "I've only had her about 30 days, but I love this mare. She's a good doer. She likes to train. I'd be surprised if she didn't run really good. At least I hope so."

Claridge, 58, is a native of Duncan, Ariz., who has plied his trade throughout the Southwest since 1970. He settled into the New Mexico circuit to stay some years ago, and has watched the casino-fed purses rise like the tide around him.

"Sometimes a guy just needs to find a spot where you're happy and just stay there," Claridge said. "And the purses here at Sunland Park are better than some spots in California. Hot Springs used to be the cat's meow, and now the purses are better here than they are in Arkansas."

Claridge has been a neutral observer over the past two seasons as Peppers Pride used Theregoesdancer as her personal sparring partner.

"She just doesn't make any mistakes," Claridge said of Peppers Pride. "When she makes her move it's, boom, she's gone. Catch me if you can. And if you hook her, nothing wrong there, either. She'll pin her ears and go right on with the program."

But then, as Claridge pointed out, "You can always have the best horse and not win the race." With nothing to lose, he is tossing a few new wrinkles into the mix, just to see if Theregoesdancer can find that little bit extra she needs to catch Peppers Pride.

"Glen Murphy will be riding our filly for the first time, and I think he fits her well," Claridge said, referring to the respected veteran, who has more than his share of Southwestern riding titles. "He's breezed her a couple of times and likes her a lot."

Theregoesdancer will also get blinkers. "Not full cups, just little rider-hiders, to try something different," he said. "You never know what might work. But if you run second, you still run second.

"Our plans - and I know plans don't always work out - but going this far, I would imagine we're going to come from a little farther off the pace," Claridge added. "I think she needs to make one run at that other mare, and see what happens."

And how would he feel if he turns out to be the trainer who finally proves Peppers Pride mortal?

"It would be awesome, wouldn't it?" Claridge replied. "I don't know how things will turn out, but we're sure gonna take a dead shot at her."