10/25/2001 11:00PM

Old and oft-injured, she still can run


If there were a sentimental favorite to win Saturday's $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, it would most likely be Spook Express.

At the age of 7, Spook Express, a South African-bred, is the senior citizen in the field, has had to overcome a frustrating series of infirmities that has limited her to just 11 starts over the last 3 1/2 years, and possesses a stretch running style that is extremely popular. Also, it cost her owners, Robert and Janet Aron, a $200,000 supplemental fee just to enter Spook Express.

"They're paying $200,000 to try to win a championship," said trainer Thomas Skiffington. "Because, barring a major upset, the winner of the Filly and Mare Turf is almost certain to win the Eclipse Award."

Skiffington, 51, and the Arons met through their daughters, both of whom ride on the show horse circuit. Robert Aron, 45, a private investor, and Janet Aron, 41, own Kinloch Farm in Keswick, Va. Janet Aron moved to the U.S. from South Africa nine years ago.

"The Arons are prominent owners of Grand Prix horses but had never owned a racehorse when we first met," Skiffington said. "Mrs. Aron said she was interested in purchasing a racehorse and being from South Africa asked me if I could find her one who'd been competing in her native country."

Skiffington, a former steeplechase rider, knew someone in South Africa who told him about Spook Express following her 4-year-old campaign.

"He said there was a filly over there who had just beaten the boys and broke Hawaii's mile-and-one-eighth track record," Skiffington said. "She also just happened to be on her way to the U.S. to join Bob Baffert's stable, but if I was interested in buying her I could keep her in my barn for a two-week trial once she cleared quarantine in New York."

Skiffington figured he had nothing to lose.

"When she arrived at the barn, I walked her one day, jogged her two, cantered her one more, and when she didn't tie up, I bought her."

Spook Express won her first start for the Arons, Hialeah Park's Columbiana Handicap, the following May. But she suffered a fracture in her left front ankle five weeks later during the running of the Just a Game Breeders' Cup Handicap. She would not race again for 15 months.

"We removed a chip and had her ready to return well before she finally made it to the races, but something would always come up to set us back," said Skiffington. "She pulled ligaments in her ankle, came down with a high suspensory, and popped a splint. It just seemed to be one huge headache after another. Now her legs look like the Rocky Mountains, they've got so many peaks and valleys and wear and tear on them."

Fortunately for Skiffington, the Arons were patient and gave him free rein when it came to bringing Spook Express back to the races. Skiffington, who is 0 for 5 in Breeders' Cup starts, has trained such outstanding turf mares as Anka Germania, Maxzene, and Anguilla.

"I've found if you give a horse with an injury enough time, 80 or 90 percent of them will make it," Skiffington said. "But the meter is always running, and I don't know too many other clients who'd let me take the kind of time I did with Spook Express."

Spook Express enters the Breeders' Cup off a last-to-first victory in Keeneland's Grade 2 WinStar Galaxy Stakes, and Skiffington said that despite her advanced age she is as good now as she has ever been.

"I don't believe older horses slow down any or lose a step because of their age," said Skiffington, who trained Anka Germania through her 7-year-old season. "And racing on turf is a lot easier on grass horses, especially come-from-behinders, because they don't have to be near as fit."

Coming from behind, way behind, has been the key to good fortune for Spook Express, and Skiffington is quick to credit jockey Mike Smith

"Mike told me after her last two races a year ago that she pulls and pulls but won't finish," said Skiffington. "So we decided we needed to take her off the bridle, relax her, and just wait and wait before letting her make her run."

Saturday will be a busy day for the Arons. After watching the Breeders' Cup races, they will board a plane for Washington, where that evening one of their jumpers will compete in the prestigious Presidents Cup at the International Open Jumpers Show. But first comes Spook Express and the Filly and Mare Turf.

"We've been incredibly lucky," said Janet Aron. "I feel so blessed just to have had this experience. It's been like a dream to me, no matter the outcome on Saturday. This mare has brought so much fun and joy to our family while asking so little of us in return."