06/22/2007 12:00AM

Not ready for retirement home


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Sunday's modest program at Hollywood Park is topped by a group of Cal-bred fillies who will try to beat 6-year-old Vaca City Flyer in the Valkyr Stakes - good luck - but fans arriving early will get to watch the 9-year-olds Barron H and Mysterious Cat next to each other in the gate for the opening event, planning to run six furlongs for $8,000 claiming tags.

As 9-year-olds go, The Tin Man they ain't. But that shouldn't make them any less valuable, at least in terms of their ultimate care and destination. Once such horses running at top tracks go off form, they tend to disappear, perhaps resurfacing in some backwater outpost, grinding out that last of their cartilage in service of too many races in too many places. Worse, they end up on a trailer, nose-to-tail with other refugees, heading to slaughter in Canada or Mexico.

For now, at least, these two old pros are competitive. But we'll be watching them. Mysterious Cat was a stakes horse once, or at least he gave a pretty good impression of one when he was second to Bosque Redondo in the 2002 running of the San Bernardino Handicap at Santa Anita. Later that year, he ran a respectable fifth in the Longacres Mile.

Ancient history, though. Mysterious Cat has been a bedrock claimer since September 2004, when he returned from an injury. He has nine wins, including three this year, and Sunday's start will be his 46th, now doing business for the stable of Jeff Mullins.

Barron H began his racing life with Dan Hendricks, in whose care he won a straight maiden at Hollywood Park. He has had 66 starts and 17 wins for 13 different trainers, and as recently as last November, Barron H finished second in the Zip Pocket Handicap at Turf Paradise for owner Les Blake. On Sunday, he makes his second start for trainer Nick Hines.

"I think $8,000 is the lowest he's ever been in for," said Shawn Morrow, assistant at the Hines barn. "His owner wanted him running on Cushion Track, so we've had him now about two months, and he's a neat little horse. Kind of a turkey around his stall, but really sound. He's got the legs of a 3-year-old."

Good to know. An 18-year-old exacta is not out of the question.

Reading the veterinarian's list

An occasional look at the official veterinarian's list should be required reading for anyone who follows the game. Hollywood Park has the up-to-date roster posted on its website, but be prepared. It goes on for pages.

If nothing else, the list provides a literal manifestation of the fragile nature of the Thoroughbred racehorse, as if the picture wasn't crystal clear already. Ancient mariners like Barron H and Mysterious Cat should be worshipped for simply surviving so long.

To make the vet's list, a horse can be described variously as "unsound, lame, broke down, sick, injured, bled, or exhausted." Within those categories, extremes are noted, such as "bled - 4th time - barred" or "unsound - barred from racing per stewards." To be removed from the vet's list, a horse must submit to examination and usually work to the satisfaction of the official vet, before it can be entered to run again.

There have been calls from both horsemen and horseplayers to include even more information - such as throat surgeries and injected joints - but at this point, only two specific surgical procedures make the official vet's list. One is heel nerving (or, as one notation read, "heal" nerving - apparently a more hopeful variation). The other is gelding, considered an equipment change so dramatic that it is included, even though there was probably nothing wrong with the horse in the first place other than a bad attitude. Is this a tough game or what?

County fair takes over Del Mar

The San Diego County Fair is in full swing, holding Del Mar Racetrack hostage while prize pigs root around their pens, Engelbert Humperdinck croons, and carnies hawk their disposable wares. This would never happen at Saratoga.

The Del Mar meet does not begin until Wednesday, July 18, while the fair packs up and leaves town July 5. Until then, the stretch of the main track, where the concert stage sits, has been covered with hard plastic plating to protect the newly installed Polytrack racing surface. Good thing, too, since children would be tempted to play in the specially treated silica sand.

Curious to see how the spacious new multi-purpose buildings/barns are being employed, two visitors wandered into the huge structure nearest the east end of the grandstand, not far from the Rattlesnake BBQ. ("People think it tastes like chicken," informed our server. "It doesn't.")

Followers of the powerful stables trained by Paddy Gallagher and Doug O'Neill will be pleased to know that their stall space is currently playing host to a couple hundred rabbits, a handsome herd of goats, and a petting zoo. As we speak, there is a dog grooming studio on the patch of O'Neill ground where Lava Man has been traditionally stabled. As for Gallagher's American Oaks candidate Valbenny? Make that Valbunny.