08/11/2003 12:00AM

People's horse triumphs


ETOBICOKE, Ontario - So this is what it's like to have a Triple Crown winner.

It had been a relatively short time since Peteski became the last Canadian Triple Crown winner by capturing the Breeders' Stakes here in 1993.

And while there have been many great moments in the interim, it seemed like a revival of racing's wonder years here last Saturday as the clock ticked down to zero hour for Wando, the wonder horse, in his bid to become Triple Crown winner No. 7.

Many in the crowd surrounding the walking ring applauded while Wando, the pride and joy of his owner and breeder, Gustav Schickedanz, began his trek toward the racetrack for the Breeders' Stakes.

The cheers mounted when the colt stepped onto the track, and the word "Wando" seemed to hang in the air as the field of seven went through its warm-ups.

Then the crowd erupted when the horses burst from the starting gate, dramatically situated directly in front of the grandstand for the 1 1/2-mile turf race.

But those eagerly anticipating the coronation seemed to be in for a rude awakening as the horses rounded the final turn and Wando, under Patrick Husbands, momentarily seemed to be losing touch along the inside.

"I thought we were in trouble, right at the head of the stretch," admitted trainer Mike Keogh, who watched the race in his customary spot on the track apron, down by the wire, surrounded by a crush of Wando supporters, including a contingent from Barbados, the homeland of Husbands.

But when Husbands suddenly swung Wando to the outside, the colt found himself in the clear and responded with the burst of acceleration that Keogh knew was there for the asking.

"He's done that before," Keogh said. "Remember in the Grey?"

Wando, indeed, had seemed to be doomed to defeat under import rider Richard Migliore in last year's 1 1/16-mile Grey when Gigawatt, ridden by Husbands, had gotten the jump on him turning into the stretch.

"It looked like he was beat there, and as soon as he swapped onto his right lead, he took off," Keogh said. "He does that in the mornings, in his work. He just finds another gear when he switches onto his right lead."

Perhaps the fact that Wando managed to overcome adversity in the Breeders', as opposed to his outright domination of the opposition in the Queen's Plate and Prince of Wales, served to make his Triple Crown success all the more special. The cheers echoed as Wando crossed under the wire, and they did not abate as he made his way back to the winner's circle.

Keogh, Schickedanz, and Husbands all had well-deserved reasons to revel in their individual triumphs, but they appreciated that Wando's success also belonged to the throng that poured out its love for him here on a hot and muggy afternoon.

"The crowd," said Schickedanz, "I loved the crowd. It was beautiful."

Added Keogh: "It was brilliant, wasn't it? It was great to see. People were even crying."

Keogh also was among the many delighted by the fact that Wando put Thoroughbred racing on the front pages of Toronto's daily newspapers.

"That's what we need," said Keogh. "A shot in the arm."