05/30/2007 11:00PM

Not every ending a happy one

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is a fact of life in the manic-depressive world of Thoroughbred ownership that huge investments - both emotional and financial - can disappear in the snap of a fetlock.

Chuck Winner and his partners went through it last Monday when the mare Three Degrees suffered a fatal breakdown at the end of the Gamely Handicap on the Hollywood Park turf course. Winner, a horse owner for more than 20 years, was standing alongside trainer Paddy Gallagher as Three Degrees was sedated, gently lowered to the ground, and then euthanized before being loaded into an equine ambulance.

As the founder and president of Winner and Associates, an L.A.-based political consultancy firm specializing in ballot initiative campaigns, Winner is accustomed to being in reasonable control of the playing field. Let's just say their clients win a whole lot more than they lose.

By comparison, horse racing is a crapshoot in a dark alley. Winner concedes that there are any number of variables far beyond his control. In the case of Three Degrees, he and his partners were relegated to the role of helpless, traumatized spectators.

"Basically, she was standing on her cannon bone," Winner said the day after the tragedy. "Paddy is a very humane person. I could tell he felt there was no chance. Somebody had to make some decisions very quickly. And sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind."

Such hard realities did not stop Winner from examining his ongoing participation in the sport. He sighed and described his particular approach.

"There are people in it as a business," Winner said. "There are people in it because they are gamblers. There are people in it for the thrill. And there are people in it because of the game, the sport and the animals. I fall into the later category, which makes it difficult sometimes to go through situations like this. I get attached to the animals, and you're not supposed to do that. But that's what keeps me in it."

Then comes a blow like Three Degrees, and reasonable people ask serious questions.

"I've been in the business since 1985," Winner said, "with hundreds of horses, in thousands of races. I've only had three horses who had to be put down, but this one was the worst. You love them all, but she was special because she tried so hard.

"At dinner the other night, my wife and I talked about it," Winner added. "Do we want to exit the sport? There are great highs and awful lows. I really like the people in the business. I really love the animals. And I think the industry is doing its best to help them stay sound. I like the idea of synthetic surfaces very much. Unfortunately, we weren't on one the other day."

Winner and his fellow owners are represented by the Thoroughbred Owners of California. The group's executive director, Drew Couto, a former horse owner himself, said that his organization does not try to sugarcoat the darker realities of the game.

"We do our best to expose people to as many of the experiences they can have," Cuoto said. "We talk about the highs and lows. But we recognize that breakdowns do happen. Our goal is to do everything we can to encourage the industry to find ways to make the game safer.

"In a case like Three Degrees, it's not the economic loss," Cuoto said. "People are devastated by something like that. It's the emotional loss that is more upsetting, and that's what we talk about."

As he played back the events of Monday, Chuck Winner was not about to do any second-guessing. He did, however, offer one point about the delicate process of handling both a badly injured horse and distressed owners by track officials.

"If I were making any recommendations - and I'd probably be out of place - from our standpoint, I would have liked to at least been consulted on putting the horse down," Winner noted. "I've been in other circumstances, in the case of a horse named Go Bob, that if I hadn't gotten more than one opinion he'd be dead now."

Go Bob was a promising Argentine import, owned by Winner and partners David Bienstock and Paul Mandabach, who made his U.S. stakes debut in the 2005 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita. Unfortunately, Go Bob barely made it to the first turn before he blew an ankle, suffering injuries to both bone and soft tissue similar to those sustained by Three Degrees.

"Just looking at it, though, her injury was much worse," Winner noted. "Go Bob at least had some support. They rebuilt his leg with tons of screws and bolts, similar to Barbaro, except it was a front leg. Now, he's basically got airplane wire holding his leg together. But when I go out to see him, you'd think he's about to go race."

Go Bob, a son of Bordeaux Bob, lives at a farm in the town of Ontario, east of the Los Angeles.

"We just saved him to save him," Winner added. "But he was doing so good that we bred him to three or four mares this year. And now, if you can believe it, he's going to make babies."