02/14/2002 1:00AM

Putting the screws to Squirtle Squirt


ARCADIA, Calif. - The Internet can be a dark, disturbing world, full of shocking sights and troubling tales. Just ask David Lanzman, owner of Squirtle Squirt, who is up against the brilliant filly Xtra Heat in the race for Eclipse Award champion sprinter of 2001.

"I went on the computer and saw that she's crushing us in the fan vote," said Lanzman this week as he prepared for his trip to the Eclipse Awards dinner on Monday night in Miami.

Lanzman was tapping into Daily Racing Form's informal and admittedly unscientific poll of fans who have stated their Eclipse Award preferences through the Form's website, drf.com. The tally as of Thursday showed Xtra Heat with 1,241 votes (42 percent) and Squirtle Squirt with 878 hits (30 percent).

That's gotta hurt, especially when Lanzman can cue up a tape or linger on a photograph that clearly displays the image of Squirtle Squirt sweeping past Xtra Heat to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint last October at Belmont Park. Call Lanzman at home in Los Angeles, and if he is not there to answer, his machine will entertain you with Tom Durkin's call of the Sprint, complete with postrace commentary.

Little wonder that the thought of Squirtle Squirt finishing second in the ballot box galls Lanzman to no end. As a disciplined horseplayer, his ethic is based on picking winners without prejudice, and leaving emotion at the gate.

"The most popular doesn't always mean the best," Lanzman said. "I've got a ton of admiration for Xtra Heat. But if I've got to lose, I don't want to lose to a horse that ran against the best one time and lost. I don't want to sound mean, but I'd almost rather lose to a horse like Delaware Township, who ran against the best four times, and won three."

Lanzman, who turns 45 in March, has been a die-hard fan since his teen years and a horse owner for the last 10. Still, his first love was rock and roll, and he lived the dream with a series of L.A. bands. He was not exactly a starving artist - malnourished is a better description - but he eventually discovered a more profitable knack for the banking world and made his fortune in the mortgage business. Before establishing his own company, he was a go-getter for First Nationwide in the early 1990's as the bank's leading producer of loans. He has the plaque to prove it.

"Yeah, I had to wear the tux and get up in front of about 400 people," Lanzman recalled. "But it was nothing like the Eclipse Awards. I've never been. If I win, do I have to speak?"

Briefly, yes, which is exactly how Squirtle Squirt went about his work as the best 3-year-old male sprinter in America last year. Besides the Breeders' Cup, he won the King's Bishop at Saratoga and ran second to older horses in the Triple Bend and the Vosburgh, while doing all the hard work on the front end.

"I still think his best race was the one he lost at Hollywood Park," Lanzman said, referring to the seven-furlong Triple Bend. "I mean, 21 and three, 43 and three - under pressure! And he gets beat only a half-length."

The Triple Bend was the race that set Squirtle Squirt apart as something special, and propelled him to an Eastern campaign. The colt was already acquiring an underground following because of his name - it came from Lanzman's son Blair, who was inspired by his favorite Pokemon character - which sounded silly until you saw the horse run. Remember how we laughed at first at "Seattle Slew"?

"I thought going east would be great for us," said Lanzman, a native of Erie, Pa. "With success back there, we'd be a bicoastal horse. But in my opinion, the opposite happened. Neither side took a hold of us. When he ran back there, he was always the West Coast horse who shipped in. Then before the Breeders' Cup, he was never mentioned with the West Coast sprinters. It was always Kona Gold, El Corredor, and Swept Overboard."

In one sense, Squirtle Squirt had become a cog in the overpowering Bobby Frankel machine of 2001. Of Lanzman's 18 horses, he is the only one who earned a place in the Frankel barn. Even there he was a role player - stable sprinter - considerably less glamorous than the parts filled by Flute, Lido Palace, and Aptitude.

Come time for the Breeders' Cup, Squirtle Squirt's chances in the Sprint were almost a public afterthought. Frankel gave him his "fourth-best" chance among the stable's six starters on Breeders' Cup Day. But by the end of the afternoon, Squirtle Squirt was transformed into the answer to a trivia question: Who broke Frankel's 0-for-38 maiden in the Breeders' Cup?

"After the Breeders' Cup, I went through a form of post-partum depression," Lanzman said. "I ran a horse that I bought at the Barretts sale for cheap, against some supposedly very nice horses in a maiden special at Hollywood. He won, and I just stood there when he hit the wire, and did a real minor clenched fist. The people I was with asked me why I wasn't jumping up and down. I didn't know. It just wasn't the same."

On Monday, the feeling could return.