05/21/2008 12:00AM

Not many line up to go long


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There was a column all teed up and ready to bang down the middle of the fairway, summoning the golden memories of the great stayer Quicken Tree in honor of the running of the 1 1/2-mile Quicken Tree Stakes on Friday night at Hollywood Park.

It would have made great reading, too. Quicken Tree was a sight to behold. A sun-bleached chestnut with four long stockings and a forthright blaze, he was a bag of neuroses who used to freeze with stage fright in the gate, which made him, by default, the most electrifying stretch-runner of his era.

Quicken Tree even had an energy button, a patch of white hair just behind his right cheek. The concept was addressed by ESPN's Kenny Mayne before a rapt group of grammar school kids before the Preakness, who learned that Big Brown has such a button, on his left side, accounting for the colt's explosive acceleration. Mayne then told the children he was kidding, bruising them psychologically for years to come. Still, after what Big Brown did in the Preakness, there may be something to it.

Quicken Tree's jockeys - usually Fernando Alvarez - punched the energy button hard enough between 1967 and 1970 to win such major bicoastal events as the Santa Anita Handicap, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the San Juan Capistrano, the Manhattan Handicap, and two runnings of the Display Handicap. If you ran them all the same day, you would travel 10 1/4 miles.

But this column won't be about Quicken Tree after all, because the Quicken Tree Stakes was canceled because of a lack of interest. Maybe it was because it was restricted to California-bred runners, or maybe it was because the purse was only $75,000. Something's going on, though, because there was also a $65,000 overnight stakes race at 1 1/2 miles on grass in the Hollywood condition book for Wednesday of this week - named for the Richard Mandella-trained stayer Sandpit - and that didn't fill, either.

Although the pair of scrubbed events represents only a small cluster, it does tend to dull arguments that racing wants to place a renewed premium on stamina, for the sake of the breed. The Quicken Tree had been part of the advertised Hollywood stakes program from the moment the schedule was issued earlier this year. Only 10 were nominated, and, according to the racing office, only four were entered to run.

One of them was Top This and That, an old campaigner trained by Dan Hendricks who had just finished a steady fourth in the Khaled Handicap for Cal-breds going nine furlongs on the Hollywood turf. Hendricks figured the 1 1/2 miles would suit his horse well.

"These little stakes not filling is nothing new," Hendricks noted. "But when you write races at a mile and a half and then restrict them to Cal-breds, how many of them are really out there? I had two I could have run in there, but I only nominated one."

The question lingers - is Hendricks in a minority of trainers who can condition horses for long distances? He didn't take the bait.

"Maybe I'm just a slow trainer," he replied. "Takes a mile and a half for me to get going."

The facts state otherwise, and Hendricks might have a good weekend to prove it. Top This and That was supposed to set the table for a memorable Memorial Day in the Hendricks barn. On Monday, he will be running the brilliant middle-distance grass horse Daytona in the $250,000 Shoemaker Mile and the reliable grass mare Lavender Sky in the $250,000 Gamely Handicap on the same program.

Even with the talented Brother Derek stopping and starting in his quest for a comeback and Indian Sun on the rise as a 3-year-old turf specialist, Daytona is the consensus star of the Hendricks barn. The 4-year-old Irish gelding has won 5 of his last 6 starts, all in graded stakes company, and comes off a gritty win in the Arcadia Handicap at Santa Anita on April 5. The trainer likes his chances.

"He's doing super," Hendricks said. "On tilt."

In the meantime, the Hendricks crew is getting a stall ready for Runaway Dancer, the venerable, long-winded gray last seen running third to Spring House in the Burke Handicap on Oct. 28, 2007.

With races like the Sunset Handicap, the Burke, and the Jim Murray Memorial to his name, Runaway Dancer has been an institution in California's long-distance ranks since the fall of 2003.

"He's almost ready to come back to the track," Hendricks said. "We gave him an extra long time out at EA Ranch, because this might be his last hurrah at 9 years old. Then again, he might run for two straight years. We'll get him legged up and hopefully get him ready for a race maybe late in the meet at Hollywood, before we go to Del Mar."

Even though new talent is desperately required to invigorate the population, the return of a role model like Runaway Dancer can only be a good thing. After all, as Hendricks said, "We've got to fill those mile-and-a-half races somehow."