10/07/2004 12:00AM

One bad step ends Bayamo's career


ARCADIA, Calif. - The big, straightforward 5-year-old chestnut gelding named Bayamo reached the end of his racing career somewhere around the final turn of the Santa Anita Park grass course during the running of the Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship last Sunday afternoon.

It was at that point the suspensory ligaments in Bayamo's left front ankle gave way like frayed rubber bands, which in turn pulled to pieces one of the two sesamoid bones that act as a fulcrum for the fetlock joint. David Flores, who thought he was on the winner at the time, eased Bayamo to a stop and spent a lonely couple of minutes with his wounded warrior, waiting for help to arrive.

"He was going so good," Flores said later in the day. "It happened so fast. I had just asked him to run a little bit and he was picking up horses, going strong."

Up in the stands, owner Jack Preston watched helplessly as Bayamo's injured leg was fitted with a Kimzey splint to provide temporary support. The horse was then loaded onto the Oak Tree Racing Association's custom-made equine ambulance. A good day at the races had suddenly turned grim.

"Boy, he's such a nice horse," Preston said Thursday morning, still a little shellshocked from Sunday's events. "I'm always concerned about one of our horses breaking down in a race. At least, this time, it wasn't real bad. I guess he just took a bad step. But it was very upsetting. A real kick in the stomach."

Bayamo was favored to win the Hirsch, and rightfully so, especially after his solid seconds this year in the Charlie Whittingham Memorial and the Eddie Read Handicap, to go along with a romping win in the American Handicap. Trainer Julio Canani had done his usual remarkable job of turning a modest European handicapper into a U.S. graded stakes winner. Bred in Ireland, Bayamo raced just four times in France as a 3-year-old, winning once at a track in the provinces.

Now, Bayamo's immediate future is in doubt, pending his recovery from two surgeries performed this week at the Chino Valley Equine Hospital.

"We're being cautiously optimistic," said Dr. Helmuth Von Bluecher, Canani's attending vet. "The prognosis is good for the horse to be pasture sound."

On Wednesday, Dr. Ted Fisher went into the damaged ankle to removed the pieces of the shattered sesamoid. Then, on Thursday, Fisher performed a second procedure to fuse the fetlock joint, assuring support that the damaged suspensories can no longer provide.

"At least he'll live," said Canani.

The fused joint probably will preclude Bayamo from anything other than life in a pasture, but being "pasture sound" is not that bad considering the extent of the injury. Preston had been holding out some hope that Bayamo might make someone a fine riding horse someday, "even though you'd need a stepladder to get on him," according to the owner.

"Fusing the joint is the safest thing for him," Preston said. "We want him to have the best possible chance to get through this and have a good life."

Preston races under the Prestonwood Farm banner along with his brother, Art. Their silks have been carried by a host of top runners, including sprint champion Groovy, handicap champion Victory Gallop, and Beverly D. Stakes winner Kostroma.

Their best-known runner, by far, is Da Hoss, the remarkable gelding trained by Michael Dickinson who made horse racing history by winning the Breeders' Cup Mile at Woodbine in 1996 and again at Churchill Downs in 1998 - with only one race in between.

Da Hoss now enjoys life as a premier attraction of the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park, not far from Lexington. His immediate neighbors include 1995 and '96 Horse of the Year Cigar, and 1981 and '84 Horse of the Year John Henry.

Bayamo did not really get the chance to earn a spot with such exalted company. Nor will he be leaving more than fleeting mark on the racing scene, with just 11 starts in three seasons and purses of $321,428. This matters not to Preston, however. He vowed that there is a lifetime home awaiting Bayamo.

"We sold our big Kentucky farm to WinStar, of course," Preston noted. "But I've just bought a smaller place, right across the street from Saxony Farm. Bayamo will be going there as soon as he's allowed to travel."

In the meantime, the Prestons will try to win another Breeders' Cup Mile this year in their Texas back yard when Canani sends out Special Ring for a repeat appearance. Jack Preston is still smarting over the 2003 running at Santa Anita, in which Special Ring finished eighth to Six Perfections, beaten five lengths. At his best on the lead, Special Ring missed the break that day and was caught inside, crying for room, throughout most of the race.

"We're hoping for a little better luck this time," Preston said.

After Bayamo, maybe they've had their bad luck for a while.