02/09/2004 12:00AM

Racing's good guy gets a win

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ARCADIA, Calif. - After winning the $300,000 Strub Stakes last Saturday at Santa Anita Park with Domestic Dispute, Patrick "Paddy" Gallagher spent most of the next morning doing a pretty good imitation of an old school Irish politician, shaking hands, petting dogs and kissing babies, while modestly accepting congratulations for a job well done.

"That's me," Gallagher said with a laugh. "A real one-hit wonder."

Hardly. Gallagher has been closely associated with good horses ever since he came to California from his native Northern Ireland, beginning with his days as an assistant to John Sullivan (they came within a nose of winning the first Arlington Million with The Bart), to his seven-year term of service at the side of Bill Shoemaker.

Armed with a bottomless arsenal of jokes and wisecracks, the 43-year-old Gallagher provides a daily reminder that horse racing might be serious business, but there is no reason to be grim about it. (His Strub Day material included the question, "Did you hear about the guy who went on a vegetable and vodka diet? He lost 30 pounds and his driver's license.")

Gallagher grew up in the town of Strabane (pronounced nothing like it is spelled), in Northern Ireland's County Tyrone, not far from Londonderry. As a teen in the early 1970's, Gallagher and his young mates were regularly rousted by British troops stationed there to maintain order during the bloody civil strife between Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant communities. Gallagher, from a Catholic family, has few good memories about the time of the Troubles.

"You'd be just walking down the street or they'd pull you off a school bus when soldiers would put you up against a wall and search you," Gallagher said. "It would happen all the time."

Horse racing was Gallagher's way out, and in grateful return, he honors the game with a spotless reputation in the service of loyal clients, as well as providing light-hearted relief from the somber chorus of major stakes winners coming from the California stables of Bobby Frankel, Bob Baffert, and Richard Mandella.

In fact, in Gallagher's world, it was Baffert who made the Strub fairytale possible. Not only did he sell Domestic Dispute to Gallagher's clients, Chuck Winner and Dave Bienstock, it was the Baffert colt During who finished a close second last Saturday. On the track after the race, Baffert was among the first to shake Gallagher's hand.

"I thought he'd come at me with some kind of line," Gallagher said. "I was ready for anything. But all he said was, 'Congratulations.' I told him this morning that I think the reason everybody was so happy I won was because he was second."

In early 1991, when Shoemaker was rendered quadraplegic in his one-vehicle accident, it was Gallagher who kept the stable going strong. Shoemaker's name might have been attached to the horses, but everyone knew it was Gallagher who won the Beverly D. that summer at Arlington with Fire the Groom.

When Shoemaker returned to the stable, with special ramps installed to accommodate his wheelchair, Gallagher continued as the head man on the ground and in the stalls. Together, they had a good run of stakes horses, including Gallagher's personal favorite, Diazo, winner of the Strub Stakes in 1994.

"A little horse, but a big heart," said groom Elias Anaya, who rubbed both Diazo and now Domestic Dispute.

"Last year, he was running and growing at the same time, which is tough for a young horse to do," Gallagher said of Domestic Dispute. "He's turned into a big, good-looking fellow now. And he acts like he wants to go on."

Whether he wants to go on against the likes of Medaglia d'Oro, Pleasantly Perfect, and Candy Ride remains to be seen. The Strub final time of 1:49.08 for nine furlongs was hardly inspiring, and the 11 runners finished in a six-length cluster. There was enough trouble in the race to qualify for a segment on Spike-TV's "Most Extreme Elimination Challenge."

"Ask any one of eight guys and they'll tell you they should have won," said Mike Smith, who rode fifth-place Formal Attire and returned just glad to be alive.

Even Domestic Dispute and Kent Desormeaux had to check their progress at a key point in the upper stretch before a seam opened to set them free.

"He had to get a little lucky," Gallagher said. "But you can say that about most things, can't you?"

Such a philosophy fits with a saying from Gallagher's homeland: "An Irishman has an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains him through temporary periods of joy."

That said, it was no surprise to see Gallagher pull a mutuel ticket out of his pocket, late last Saturday afternoon, with the numbers "7-7" indicating a double on his two horses in Santa Anita's eighth and ninth. Domestic Dispute clicked at 14-1, but the bet was already a bust after Skywalker Red lost a tough one at 7-1. Gallagher tore the ticket into tiny pieces and tossed them into a hedge.

"I don't need to be reminded of what could have been," Gallagher said with a grin, trying hard not to act like a winner.