08/19/2007 11:00PM

No fairy-tale ending this time


DEL MAR, Calif. - Neil Howard sat by himself in his Saratoga Springs hotel room last Sunday evening, watching a horse he had been training not much more than a week before win a million-dollar race nearly 2,500 miles away.

"Oh yeah, I was cheering for him," said Howard, who until Aug. 11 was the trainer of Student Council, the freshly minted winner of the Pacific Classic.

"At the same time, I was saying, 'Damn, I wish Mr. Farish could have waited one more week to sell this horse.'"

Howard deserved every ounce of his mixed emotions. Student Council had been in his care for three seasons and 20 starts, and no trainer worth his stopwatch truly enjoys the sight of a former horse reaching the heights without him. But in terms of the level of sheer drama swirling around this 17th running of the Pacific Classic, Howard's end of the tale had to stand in line. After all, how can anyone hope to compete with any of these:

* Student Council's new trainer, Vladimir Cerin, who watched his world collapse just last February with the sudden death of his wife and closest confidante, the 51-year-old Kellie Cerin.

* Student Council's first-time rider, the respected veteran New Yorker Richie Migliore, whose ambitious attempt to conquer California had hit a depressingly low stretch of the road during the current Del Mar meet.

* Pacific Classic favorite Lava Man, the darling of the West, defending champion and bona fide box office draw, whose reward for three years of noble service was a new Del Mar racing surface that was stacked against him from the start.

* Lava Man's groom, Noe Garcia, whose strong left arm was lost in a gruesome freeway wreck four weeks before the Classic, leaving the Doug O'Neill stable in shock and eliciting an overwhelming charitable response from the local racing community.

* Lava Man's jockey, Corey Nakatani, who sustained a painful shoulder injury just four days before the Classic in a prerace accident but still answered the bell, winning the Del Mar Oaks the day before to create the chance of a weekend sweep.

Such fairy tales rarely come true, although the stage was set to perfection. As a large share of the 35,320 fans crowded around Del Mar's picture-postcard walking ring, Nakatani acknowledged Garcia, standing off to one side, wearing a jacket with a dangling left sleeve on a hot and muggy day.

"For you," Nakatani said, pointing at Garcia, who responded with a self-conscious smile and a thumbs up.

Breaking from the rail, Nakatani gave Lava Man every possible chance to run his typically powerful race. While passing the stands, he guided his horse deftly over the heels of Albertus Maximus and then outran Time Squared to secure a perfect striking position going into the first turn, in the clear and just behind the pacesetting A.P. Xcellent.

"It was a great ride," said Jason Wood, Lava Man's co-owner, as he watched a replay by the winner's circle rail. "And right there, turning for home, I thought he was still going good. But then when he flattened out, I knew we were in deep trouble."

In truth, according to Nakatani, Lava Man had been empty since the half-mile pole. They ended up sixth, beaten six lengths.

"It's hard to take, with a horse like him, to feel him trying and struggling, and still trying after he's done," Nakatani said at the end of the day, as his valet helped him peel him off his T-shirt while trying not to aggravate the shoulder. Was the rider still in pain from the earlier injury?

"Nah, that's nothing," Nakatani said. "I do feel like my heart's been ripped out, though. But I don't want to sound like a sore loser. Polytrack is new to all of them. There were a few others who handled it better than him, that's all."

There was little doubt, given all the variables, that Lava Man was beaten by Polytrack and Polytrack alone. The final time of 2:07.29 would have earned the footing a designation of "heavy" under traditional dirt conditions, and Lava Man has built his reputation on firm ground.

"We've been blessed with a lot of speed-favoring racetracks for him, but he's probably a true miler on the Polytrack," said trainer Doug O'Neill. "Any chance we could talk Del Mar into making the Classic a mile?"

About the same chance as owner Ro Parra asking for his money back from Will Farish for Student Council. After the race, worth $600,000 to the winner, Cerin was effusive in his praise of Neil Howard, deflecting any credit for shepherding Student Council through the five days that the son of Kingmambo had spent in Del Mar prior to the race. Howard wouldn't hear it.

"Just because you have a horse for only a week doesn't mean anything, especially when you ship him that far," Howard said. "A lot of things can go wrong. Shipping to the West Coast is about the toughest thing to do, and you've got to watch your horse close. I appreciate the kind words he gave me, but he's making light of the what he had to do. To have the horse such a short time and have him in apple-pie order like that, he should be proud of the job he did."