04/21/2003 12:00AM

Passinetti: He did what?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Niall O'Callaghan began his Monday morning with the usual glance at the Thoroughbred Daily News waiting for him on his desk at Churchill Downs. There were results from abroad, closing day at Gulfstream, a recap from Keeneland, and . . . what's this! From Santa Anita Park, on Sunday's closing program, the $400,000 San Juan Capistrano Handicap was won by a horse called Passinetti.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," O'Callaghan said. "I thought it was Groundhog Day. I thought the horse was dead, or worse. This couldn't be the same Passinetti?"

It was, the very same animal who came to O'Callaghan from France in the summer of 1999. Passinetti represented O'Callaghan's first association with international owner Gary Tanaka, and the trainer's mandate was to run the horse a few times on the turf and then hand him over to Ben Cecil in California, whereupon there would be a miraculous conversion to dirt racing for such events as the 2000 Strub Stakes and Santa Anita Handicap.

At least, that was the plan.

Not long into Passinetti's California stay, however, the suspensory ligament in his left front ankle scrapped those hopes and dreams. The damage was severe enough to render him nothing more than just another handsome, 4-year-old grandson of Seattle Slew and Lyphard with no particular appeal as a stallion and zero future as a racehorse. Just like that, Passinetti disappeared from view.

On that same Monday morning - Groundhog Day to O'Callaghan - Bobby Mitchell was busy supervising the 80 horses he has laid up in various states of recovery at his Bonnie Acres Farm in the high desert town of Hemet, Calif. Then the telephone rang, and Mitchell was told that one of his former inmates had won the San Juan Capistrano the day before.

"He . . . but . . . did . . . he . . . what?" Mitchell was having trouble with the concept. "I haven't even read the paper yet. Well, I'll be damned. That's amazing!"

That's an understatement. There have been racehorses return from the depths of serious soft tissue damage before. But not many, and certainly few to the level it takes to win a race like the San Juan Capistrano, at 1 3/4 miles on grass.

Passinetti, for all his regal heritage, wasn't even a proven Group 3 kind of European horse when he hit these shores. A second in the 1999 Virginia Derby for O'Callaghan was all he could muster of note. By the time Passinetti commenced his stay with Mitchell, in November of 2000, he was well on his way to a second career as a well-bred saddle horse, at best.

"We were still up in Bradbury when he came in," Mitchell said, referring to the upscale, horsey enclave just east of Santa Anita. "He didn't want to stay behind, so he moved down here with us."

Mitchell's Bradbury version of Bonnie Acres had been a Southern California institution for nearly 30 years. His clients have included Charlie Whittingham, Lazaro Barrera, D. Wayne Lukas, and just about every local trainer of national repute. As a successful trainer himself, of both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, Mitchell knows how the athlete ticks and what they require during recuperation.

Still, it is very unusual for Mitchell to have a horse in rehab for 19 months. Passinetti eventually became part of the scenery. When Mitchell sold his Bradbury property in late 2000 - for $2.6 million on a $147,000 investment in 1972 - Passinetti was tagged and bubble-wrapped for shipping along with the lamps, the pictures, and the stereo equipment.

"The horse looked good when he came in, except for that suspensory," Mitchell said. "It was pulled pretty bad. We blistered it a few times, using a reducing treatment and maybe a little bit of mercury. But to tell the truth, we'd pretty much given up on him."

Any thought of a stallion sale evaporated with the declining bloodstock market. Passinetti idled away his days in his new home in Hemet, under the care of Mitchell's top guys, Alfredo Limon and Jose Gonzalez. For his own good, at the age of 5, Passinetti was gelded. It was the final insult.

"The last six months or so we really didn't do anything with him," Mitchell said. "I finally told Ben the horse was sound, and that he might want to take him back and try him again."

So he did. Passinetti said farewell to the new Bonnie Acres in June of 2002. Then, after legging up for three months with Denny Sparks at San Luis Rey Downs, Passinetti returned to Cecil's Santa Anita stable last fall.

"Well, at least he didn't go backwards when he was with me," said Sparks, who was just as amazed as everyone else in the Passinetti food chain. "When he left here, all I could say was, 'Good luck.'"

The San Juan was Passinetti's fourth race of a comeback that will have people shaking their heads every time he runs. Cecil suddenly has a bonafide marathon grass runner to campaign at 1 1/2 miles. And O'Callaghan retains tongue-in-cheek bragging rights in Passinetti as the trainer who knew him when.

"Horses generally do blossom with me, eventually," O'Callaghan said. "Give me a runner, and three or four years later he's sure to work out."