02/05/2007 12:00AM

Rail trip not always advisable

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The crafty veteran David Penna, now gone, once took a promising apprentice for a walk on the track during a quiet moment before first post one day at Tampa Bay Downs. The apprentice was developing a habit of blowing turns and still winning races, so Penna figured it was time for an object lesson in Jockey 101, before it was too late.

"Do you see this?" Penna asked, gently patting the rail.

"Yeah, yeah, I do," replied the wide-eyed bug.

"This is the inside rail," Penna explained. "The object is to stay as close to this as possible."

The best riders learn it and live it. More importantly, they know when to apply it, saving ground when they can, taking tiny bites out of the unforgiving geometry of America's eternally turning racetracks. By the same rule, they know when to say no, steer wide and choose the uncluttered path. For as the inside giveth, it also taketh away.

These cruel truths were in evidence at the top of the game over the weekend, especially on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, where fans were treated to the sight of Horse of the Year Invasor nearly going down before getting through along the inside to win the nine-furlong Donn Handicap.

It was great theater, but only for those whose taste leans toward "Jackass II" or an Evel Knievel canyon jump. Since he was 10 lengths superior on paper and probably more in reality, Invasor did not need to be down in there, saving worthless ground, mingling with commoners. But there he was, because of choices made by his 19-year-old rider, Fernando Jara, and tragedy nearly ensued.

"He never stopped running," Jara said in a postrace interview, which is true as long as you consider stumbling a form of running. Giving Jara the benefit of the doubt in terms of translation, he probably meant to say Invasor never stopped trying, which is absolutely true. What an animal.

In an entirely different application of the Penna Principal, Garrett Gomez timed his dive to the rail to perfection aboard Arson Squad in the Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, about two hours after the Donn, and got the money over a scrambling cluster that included Spring at Last, Brother Derek, and Midnight Lute.

The Strub was the richest of three major stakes won by Gomez over the weekend, which included victories on 3-year-old Ravel (as in Bolero) in the Sham Stakes and 6-year-old Molengao (from Brazil) in the San Antonio Handicap. By far the nation's leader, with mount earnings already topping $2 million, Gomez was applying what he had learned in his first collaboration with Arson Squad when they were fourth in the San Fernando Stakes.

"Bruce doesn't really teach his horses to pull," Gomez said, referring to trainer Bruce Headley. "Even though they might work fast, they're not aggressive. When I rode him before, he was coming off sprint races, so I thought he might show a little bit more speed. I left there with my hands kind of down and he didn't go anywhere. I found myself out the back door, and giving him too much to do."

This time it was different, right from the start.

"I reached in and strapped him three or four times on the shoulder, and got him up in gear," Gomez said. "As they quickened up the backside I was having to squeeze him a little bit, but then as he started to build he put me right back in the race. After that it was time to find somewhere to go."

Gomez found it, deep in the stretch, inside the battling Spring at Last and Brother Derek. Arson Squad, wearing Headley's trademark yellow bridle, slipped through to win by 1 1/4 lengths for his owners, Mace and Samantha Siegel.

"A lot of times, if you sit in there long enough, something will develop," Gomez said. "One of the horses in front of you will stop, or kick free, and you'll be able to maneuver your way through."

The challenge is to avoid catastrophe while you are waiting for the opportunity. Gomez watched the Donn Handicap in the jockeys' room earlier in the day and flinched with everyone else when Invasor, in tight late in the game, clipped the heels of the slower horse in front of him.

"In most of your races, you've got to cut what corners you can," Gomez noted. "But when you're on the best horse, your main concern is keeping trouble-free. If you get beat that way, it's back to the drawing board."

Gomez refused to be too hard on Jara, though. Apparently, Garrett was once a 19-year-old jockey himself, and far from a finished product.

"Yeah, I definitely brushed myself off a couple times," Gomez said. "He's young, and he's a good rider. I just think maybe he got used to riding his horse that way, when he probably should have been thinking he was a lot better than these, so don't get in trouble, don't get him stopped. One thing's for sure - the horse showed he is quite an athlete."