03/10/2008 11:00PM

As reliable as she is versatile

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In a world where drinking water has become polluted with Prozac runoff, perfectly good beef is being recalled by the boatload, and the governor of a populous eastern state that rhymes with You Dork falls prey to man's most basic instincts, let us give thanks for at least one true constant in this mixed-up world.

Praise be to Nashoba's Key.

There will be no songs sung of the field Nashoba's Key faced last Sunday in the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap at Santa Anita. Let's just say there were seats available in the front row. Still, it is comforting to be able to report that it was not who she dusted, but how she dusted them with such complete authority, befitting a heavily favored topweight who came within one victory last year of winning an Eclipse Award.

Her trainer, Alabama's own Carla Gaines, stands constantly amazed at this 5-year-old mare, whose behavior around the barn can be downright intimidating. Two days after the Santa Margarita, Gaines was still swooning.

"She was so composed," Gaines said. "She handled herself brilliantly in the paddock and the post parade. Even in the race she listened to everything Garrett told her to do. Kind of weird, really. And it appeared to be a very easy race on her."

Garrett Gomez was riding Nashoba's Key for the first time since April 29, 2007, when they won the Fran's Valentine Stakes on the grass at Hollywood Park. To that point, Gomez had ridden her in all three of her races and won them all. But when he packed up and went east, the mount came open. Gaines and owner Warren Williamson turned to Joe Talamo, 17 at the time, and they were rewarded with four straight wins in Grade 1 and 2 company before the streak was broken in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf over the muddy Monmouth bog.

Unless you are Steve Cauthen, there is nothing more insecure than being a teenager on a top racehorse. After Talamo and Nashoba's Key came up 1 1/4 lengths shy of catching Quite a Bride in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf in January, Gomez was back on board. Gaines still agonizes over the decision.

"I don't ever want to say anything bad about Joe," Gaines said. "He's a good young rider and he's got a great future. I like to think I'm a real loyal person, and it just killed me making the change. But you've got to do what's right for your business. I remember, though, how Garrett told me it made his heart heavy to watch her win that first race he didn't ride her. He felt like he was part of her development, and he was, just like Joe was."

The pace for the nine-furlong Santa Margarita was almost identical to the way the nine-furlong Sunshine Millions race unfolded, even though they were run over different surfaces. In the grass race, Nashoba's Key found herself anywhere from 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 lengths behind pacesetting Quite a Bride after the half in 50.58 seconds and three-quarters in 1:14.53. In the Santa Margarita, on synthetics, Gomez had his mare camped just a length back of Dawn After Dawn through fractions of 50.03 and 1:14.27 before blasting past to win by 4 1/2 lengths.

"Had she been further back, or wide on both turns, I would have been panicking like I was the last time," Gaines confessed. "A half in 50! Hello?"

Gaines now goes into her Hamlet act, indecisive and fretful about where and when to run Nashoba's Key next. In fairness, Gaines does not dither out of fear of potential competition. She balks because, with this remarkable mare, she has so many choices between synthetic main tracks and turf courses. And even the idea of an old-fashioned dirt track does not give her pause.

"I've had a lot of people ask me 'What about sending her back east?' so she'd get some respect back there," Gaines said. "I guess that should be important to me, but it's not. I suppose I'm just kind of a country girl, and I like competing on the West Coast. If I need to go back east, maybe I will. But I haven't thought that far ahead. I've always been someone who goes day by day with their horses."

The main goal is the Breeders' Cup, to be run at Santa Anita on Oct. 24 and 25. Even then, Gaines could go either way, back to the Filly and Mare Turf or to the Distaff, now called the Ladies Classic. Both will be run on Friday as part of the new all-female Breeders' Cup program. The name "Ladies Classic" made Gaines giggle.

"It doesn't really matter to me," she said, retrieving her game face. "The money's good, and as long as it's the right race. I've always felt the longer the better for her. I mean, did you see the way she galloped out after the wire the other day? It looked like she was ahead by 15 lengths by the time she got to the six and a half. Maybe we should just go to the Arc."