08/22/2005 12:00AM

Predictable Borrego surprises us all

Jockey Garrett Gomez urges Borrego to victory in Sunday's Grade 1 Pacific Classic.

DEL MAR, Calif. - In the history of sporting endeavors, there is a rich list of catch-phrases that strike automatic terror into the hearts of unlucky competitors. Among them would be "Michael Jordan from the top of the key," "Jack Nicklaus has this 10-footer to win," and "Lance Armstrong is here, and he's brought his bike."

But before last Sunday, the announcer's cry of "Here comes Borrego!" was usually greeted with either "So what?" or "Good, I'm home free."

He was like the fighter who lost the first eight rounds and then finished with a flurry, or the tease of a near-miss ball team that always ran out of innings. He was the king of the Place Pick All pools, an automatic in exactas and trifectas - but always underneath.

Then came last Sunday, on a sparkling Del Mar afternoon, when Borrego came of age. Responding to the drama of an old-fashioned, pace-filled race, Borrego circled a full field with the same reliable closing punch that has given him a share of such major events as the Hollywood Gold Cup, Santa Anita Handicap, Super Derby, Arkansas Derby, and Louisiana Derby. Only this time, quite to his surprise, Borrego found himself first under the line in the $1 million Pacific Classic.

Stop the presses. You heard right. The horny little devil finally won a big one.

His name, in Spanish, can be translated as "horned one," and Borrego's got 'em, or at least a pretty good starter set right there at the upper reaches of his wide, white blaze. Chalk them up to a twist of anatomical fate, arising from the same evolutionary lag in genetics that accounts for such useless doodads as the appendix, dewclaws, or a vestigial tail.

On Borrego, they look good, those two little bumps, giving his otherwise playful white face a mysterious, prehistoric air. On Sunday, in the Del Mar winner's circle, they looked downright fabulous as he posed beneath Garrett Gomez, alongside trainer Beau Greely and the thousand or so people who suddenly seemed to own him.

In fact, Borrego carries the forest green colors of Jon and Sarah Kelly, whose silks are adorned with the three white doves of their Tres Palomas Farm in Rancho Santa Fe. The Kellys own Borrego in partnership with Dennis Foster, Raleigh Ralls, Brad Scott, and Greely, who also gets credit in the breeding line.

By the time all the owners and their friends, and their friends' friends, made it downstairs after the Classic, the Del Mar winner's circle looked like the floor of the stock exchange. Nevertheless, Richard Mandella wedged his way through the throng to give Greely a special hug, and then later called his former assistant to share his pride and joy.

"Working for Dick meant so much to me," said Greely, who turned

34 on Aug. 1. "He taught me a lot, and it was a chance for me to thank him again. Before Sunday, the only time I was ever in a winner's circle picture for the Pacific Classic was with him, when he beat Cigar with Dare and Go."

The best thing Greely has done is let Borrego be Borrego. There have been no drastic equipment changes, no style makeovers, no frantic shipping around this year to find a race to match his peculiar needs. He trained at Santa Anita for the Pacific Classic, but that was no big deal, and he was back in his stall early Monday morning.

"If you work him a half-mile or five-eighths, he really doesn't get going until he gallops out," said Greely. "You always get scared to say it, but he's always been a pretty healthy, straightforward horse to train. I'd like to tell you he's a real challenge, but he's not."

The Pacific Classic marked the last of the major 1 1/4-mile main-track races in California this year. It was also the most entertaining. The Santa Anita Handicap ended up a one-two sweep by the Mandella runners Rock Hard Ten and Congrats, while the Hollywood Gold Cup was a one-sided romp by Lava Man. The Classic, with 11 runners, was fraught with internal intrigue from start to finish.

It could be concluded that Borrego owes his victory to Surf Cat for pushing Lava Man through fast early fractions, setting things up for a closer. But Borrego has been provided with a solid pace before and not been able to convert. This time it was different, though, because this time he had a running mate from behind.

As Gomez later testified, Borrego did not really ignite until Choctaw Nation drew alongside at the end of the final turn for home. Suddenly, Borrego was both shaken and stirred. No longer was he chasing after a distant target. This time he had a flesh-and-blood opponent hounding him from the outside, matching him stride for stride and raising his game to a higher level. Getting past Lava Man to beat Perfect Drift by a half-length was a bonus - it was Choctaw Nation whom Borrego really wanted to beat.

Still, a hot pace will always help Borrego. As Greely looks down the road, he is comforted to behold a virtual herd of free-wheeling handicap horses being pointed toward the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"The way it worked out in the [Pacific] Classic, it would make you think about getting a rabbit," Greely said. "Of course, rabbits are expensive, and a lot of times they only go a half-mile. That's why I'd love to see Surf Cat, Lava Man, Saint Liam, and Commentator all run in the Breeders' Cup Classic. I don't know if that will happen, but at least Borrego has earned his way."