08/27/2008 11:00PM

No. 17 always a tough one


DEL MAR, Calif. - One of the everlasting images of last weekend's action will be the sight of Robby Albarado aboard Mambo in Seattle pumping his whip hand in celebration at the end of the Travers Stakes. Jockeys rarely miss even the closest call, and no one who has seen the photo should criticize Albarado for thinking he had just won the prestigious event for the first time in his admirable career.

It's probably okay, though, if Albarado starts acting like he's already won this Saturday's Woodward Stakes some time Friday evening. The 1 1/8-mile main-track event at Saratoga sets up for Albarado and reigning Horse of the Year Curlin like a fat pitch over the center of the plate.

Still, they all get beat. Just ask Bill Mott, who took Cigar to California in the summer of 1996 in search of a 17th straight victory in the million-dollar Pacific Classic. They were greeted by police escorts, a media swarm, and an all-time record Del Mar crowd of 44,181. For their trouble they got to see Cigar chase the white-hot pace of Hollywood Gold Cup winner Siphon, only to be mowed down in the end by Siphon's stablemate Dare and Go.

Lazaro Barrera and his Puerto Rican patrons were even more ambitious with the attempt of the Caribbean superhorse Mister Frisky to win his 17th straight race. They tried to do it in the Kentucky Derby.

Mister Frisky had validated his 13 wins in Puerto Rico with three impressive enough stakes scores at Santa Anita through the winter of 1990, including a 4 1/2-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby. In Kentucky, Mister Frisky was favored over a field that included Unbridled and Summer Squall, but he floundered and finished a distant eighth. After finishing third in the subsequent Preakness, a serious throat abscess was discovered that ended Mister Frisky's 3-year-old season.

By contrast, the end of Citation's 16-race winning streak raised barely a ripple of attention. After winning the 1948 Triple Crown and 15 straight, Citation missed the entire 1949 season with leg problems. When he reappeared at Santa Anita in early 1950, he was essentially starting over and racing into shape. Win No. 16 came on Jan. 11 in an allowance race at six furlongs in the slop, which he won by 1 1/2 lengths. Two weeks later, he lost an overnight handicap by a neck under 130 pounds, then spent the next several months dealing with Noor. It was of some small consolation that Miche, the horse who ended Citation's streak, went on to win the 1952 Santa Anita Handicap.

On Sunday at Ruidoso Downs, in the mountains of south central New Mexico, the 5-year-old mare Peppers Pride will try to win her 17th straight in the $55,000 Lincoln Handicap, rescheduled from its washout in July. This is a six-furlong event for horses bred in New Mexico, and named for the town where each year on the first weekend of August tourists can thrill to a re-enactment of "The Last Escape of Billy the Kid."

Peppers Pride has never left New Mexico and never lost a race. In this regard her story parallels that of Hallowed Dreams, the Louisiana homegirl who won the first 16 races of her career before hitting the wall at Evangeline Downs on the evening of Aug. 12, 2000.

"It's been unreal," said Joe Allen, the owner and breeder of Peppers Pride. "Who would have ever dreamed it?"

On Thursday morning, Allen was packing up to make the 350-mile drive to Ruidoso from his home in Abilene, Texas. In that neck of the woods, Allen was known as the man behind Joe Allen's Pit Bar-B-Que long before Peppers Pride came along. Even so, when you walk in the door there's no mistaking what's been going on.

"We've got all of her win pictures in there, a big horseshoe that hangs going into the bar, and the bar is in a horseshoe shape," Allen said. "We built it when she was a 3-year-old."

The house specialty is the beef brisket (mesquite-smoked and cooked 18 hours or more), but for my money, the Bowl of Meat & Beans looks like the right way to start any day. Surprisingly, a search of Joe Allen's website menu turns up nothing called The Peppers Pride.

"No, but we might do something after she's retired," Allen said. "Up till now we've tried not to change anything. You don't want to do much while it's happening."

Sounds suspiciously superstitious.

"Well, when she runs I always wear a shirt with blue in it," Allen said. "I don't know why. That's just the way it is."

The more practical matters in the Peppers Pride story have been handled by trainer Joel Marr and jockey Carlos Madeira.

"And, of course, Jefe, her groom," Allen added. "She's his pride and joy. He and I are both 62 years old, so we kind of comprehend each other."

A run of 16 wins without a defeat is worth noting in just about any sporting context. But Allen has his feet firmly on the ground.

"We know that we can haul her off somewhere and get her beat," Allen said. "And we sure don't want to compare her to Cigar, Citation, or anybody else. She's just been a wonderful mare to us. Whether or not we're making history, we're having a good time."