04/20/2004 11:00PM

Old boy keeps going for gold


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Friday marks the return of night racing to Southern California, when Hollywood Park management offers a full card plus a concert by Cameo - those Knights of the Sound Table - that is sure to draw a crowd. Then, after wrapping things up around midnight, everyone will be asked to come back early Saturday afternoon for the $1.3 million California Gold Rush program. So forgive the staff if their tails are dragging.

Gold Rush Day presents wall-to-wall Cal-breds, 10 races' worth, topped by stakes named for such West Coast icons as Tiznow, Snow Chief, Fran's Valentine, Khaled, B. Thoughtful, and Melair.

If there is a Tiznow, a Snow Chief, or a budding Melair among the runners on Gold Rush Day, they have kept their identities well hidden. The list of nominations did include such recent breakthrough Cal-breds as House of Fortune, Silent Sighs, and McCann's Mojave, but they will be running elsewhere in the coming week at Hollywood's sister track, Churchill Downs.

That leaves the Gold Rush to be stocked with reliable faces like Continental Red, Valentine's Dancer, and Spinelessjellyfish. Especially Spinelessjellyfish.

When Spinelessjellyfish goes postward in the $150,000 Tiznow Stakes, sponsored by TVG, it will mark his fifth appearance in one of the major features on Gold Rush Day. Give him a gold star for perfect attendance. There have only been five.

Previously, Spinelessjellyfish limited his efforts to the Khaled Stakes on the grass, winning the race in 2000 and 2001 and finishing a close fourth in 2002. Last year he was an uncharacteristic sixth in the Khaled to Native Desert.

In fairness to the old boy, they did move the goalposts. At 1 1/16 miles, the first three Khaleds were pitched at the outer limits of Jelly's best distance. When the race was changed to nine furlongs in 2003, Spinelessjellyfish was hung out to dry.

Which is why, this year, trainer Jenine Sahadi will roll the dice and try the Tiznow. At 7 1/2 furlongs, the distance is right. But Spinelessjellyfish prefers the grass, and the Tiznow is on the main track.

"I know he hasn't won in a long time, and frankly, I don't care," Sahadi said. "He is a very happy horse. He's been competitive lately, getting beat but running big numbers. So as long as he's enjoying himself, that's enough for me."

Jelly is the family horse. He was bred and raised at the Sahadis' Cardiff Stud Farm near Creston, in central California. Steve Sahadi runs the farm, while sister Jenine handles their homebreds at the track. They explain the name as "a family inside joke."

"I've seen it written that he was named for me," said Jenine Sahadi, who cannot be accurately described as either spineless or jellyfishlike. "They didn't know me very well."

Spinelessjellyfish has four races on the Hollywood dirt, none of them recent. His only win among them was way back in December of 1999. His most recent effort was a fourth-place finish in the On Trust Handicap at the Tiznow distance last Dec. 13, when he was beaten a length for second behind the romping winner, Excess Summer.

With 10 wins and 14 placings in 45 starts, Spinelessjellyfish is just shy of $900,000 in earnings. Among sons of Skywalker - including marquee steeplechaser Al Skywalker - only champion Bertrando has earned more.

More to the point, though, Spinelessjellyfish has not won a race since his sire died, at the age of 21, in early 2003. It hasn't been for lack of trying. Seconds, thirds, and fourths dot his recent record, as if he is grasping for the old spark that helped him win seven of his first 12 starts.

"My vets are in awe of him," Sahadi said. "His coat looks incredible. Stephen thinks he's borderline fat, but he's just acting like a sassy guy."

Keeping old boys going strong at a ripe age is nothing new for Sahadi. Fastness was 6 when he won the Shoemaker Mile and the Eddie Read. Elmhurst won the Breeders' Cup Sprint at age 7. The French horse Grand Flotilla enjoyed a second childhood with Sahadi, winning the Sunset and the Hollywood Turf Handicap at 7, while Megan's Interco won the California Cup Classic as a 7-year-old and placed in stakes at 8 and 9.

Sahadi would protest that she keeps them going because she has to, because nothing comes along good enough to replace them. Richard Mandella used to use that line, too, but it doesn't wash.

The game needs owners and trainers who cater to the old horses, for it is the old horses who provide some semblance of continuity. Sahadi gave Spinelessjellyfish the time he needed to mature, backing off after he won his maiden as a 2-year-old. Since then, during parts of six campaigns, the old boy has required only two lengthy vacations. At one point he was in steady racing and training from late 2000 through June of 2003.

"I don't know if he can beat those horses," Sahadi said, referring to such Tiznow opponents as Excessivepleasure, Beau Soleil, and Green Team. "There's plenty of speed for him to run at, so that could help. One thing is for sure - he doesn't know he's almost 8 1/2, and certainly doesn't act it."