11/15/2001 12:00AM

Old pro hears master's voice


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Just because the race has failed to produce a Triple Crown winner, a Breeders' Cup winner, or a candidate for the Hall of Fame, don't be too quick to dismiss the results of Saturday's Hollywood Prevue Stakes. You might miss the boat on a pretty good animal.

Granted, the most precocious members of the crop of 1999 were cranked up much earlier in the season with designs on the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and division honors. Still, the seven-furlong Prevue has a 19-year history of winners speckled with such major-league runners as Afternoon Deelites, Copelan, King Glorious, Olympio, Commitisize, and Stuka.

So Vague, winner of the Prevue in 1983, gave Patty Cooksey her only Hollywood Park stakes score. Ten years later, the entire clientele of the First Cabin bar in Arcadia celebrated the victory of Individual Style.

Second and third-place finishers have included Gato del Sol, Soul of the Matter, and 1982 runner-up R. Awacs, the first good American horse campaigned by Ahmed Salman.

None of them, though, has had a life like the winner of the Prevue in 1989. That November, Individualist was acting like a very good young horse for trainer Dave Hofmans and his owners, John and Betty Mabee.

Individualist already had won two of his first three starts, and finished second in the B.J. Ridder Stakes for Cal-breds. Then came the Prevue, which he won by 2 1/2 lengths over stakes winner Top Cash.

The Prevue was hardly his last hurrah. Individualist went on to win nine more races, including Hollywood's Vernon Underwood and On Trust handicaps, while on the way to earnings of more than $760,000. Between September of 1990 and August of 1993, he was never out of training.

He was also a horse with an identity crisis. In 1989, Individualist was a 2-year-old California-bred son of Bel Bolide, not to be confused with Individualist, the 6-year-old English horse who won the 1989 Orange County Handicap at Los Alamitos, just down the road from Hollywood Park.

There were some who liked the idea of two horses named Individualist, irony being at such a premium in those days. But there was confusion, at least as far as racing computers were concerned. Since the British Individualist had dibs on the name first, the 2-year-old Individualist was saddled with a roman numeral "I" on the end of his fine name, when it appeared in places like the Daily Racing Form.

They never ran against each other, the two Individualists, although they appeared on the same program twice. Individualist the Elder ended his career running for $12,500 in January of 1992, while Individualist the Younger was still going strong, winning the Palos Verdes Handicap at Santa Anita. At that juncture, Individualist I probably could have dropped the "I"- just as Spinal Tap, in an earlier incarnation, could have changed their name from the New Originals back to the Originals when the original Originals changed their name to The Regulars. But then, what was the point?

Individualist - the one who won the Prevue - lasted as a racehorse until August 1994. By then he was 7. Injuries had taken their toll, and he was unable to win for a $20,000 tag. Hofmans, the only trainer he ever had, treated him like a champion to the end and was relieved to call it a day. Best of all, Individualist was given a chance at a second career.

He went into training as a show jumper with Candace Regel Verhoest at her riding and training facility in Ramona, Calif., not far from his birthplace at Golden Eagle Farm. Individualist proved a capable jumper, and he never lost his Thoroughbred flair. Verhoest picked up the story from there:

"About three years ago, I showed him to a real nice gal, who is a master of hounds, working in Temecula at the time," she began. But whoa. Master of hounds? As in fox-hunting?

"That's right," Verhoest went on. "I actually took him up there, to the Temecula Hunt, and rode him to hounds for her. He'd never seen hounds before in his life, and he was a star. She fell in love with him and bought him then and there. She'd had 12 master of hounds horses, and she said Individualist was far and away the best."

According to Verhoest, Individualist is in New York now, still mixing with the fox and hound set as the master's horse. And while fox hunting can be considered dicey business, ripe for criticism in an enlightened age, it cannot be denied that the old pro Individualist has found a life beyond the racetrack, one that certainly beats any number of alternatives. Twelve years ago he led the Prevue. Now he leads the hunt.