01/11/2002 12:00AM

San Gorgonio brings back memories


ARCADIA, Calif. - The first five runnings of the San Gorgonio Handicap were won by four Hall of Famers and the guy who almost trained Secretariat.

Never mind that the race back then was run as either a claiming stakes or a sprint on the grass. Any time Charlie Whittingham, Pancho Martin, Buddy Hirsch, Bobby Frankel, and Roger Laurin are part of the history, the event deserves attention.

Frankel was 31 and still in his claiming days when he won the San Gorgonio for the first time in 1973 with an old vagabond named Extra Hand (his sire was Octypus). It was 23 years before Frankel won the race again, and by that time it had become the first major grass test of the season for fillies and mares. Now he has won four of the last six runnings.

But while Frankel has dominated the most recent San Gorgonio era, it was Henry Moreno who took the race by storm from the moment it was overhauled in 1976. He won that first modern running with Tizna, came right back in 1977 with Merry Lady III, and then added a third San Gorgonio in 1987 with Frau Altiva. All three mares came from South America.

These days Moreno's stable is far from its powerhouse past. He makes news in smaller ways, behind the scenes. His connections to the South American market remain strong, and he still can put people on the scent of a good horse. He is the co-owner of the stallion Red, a fast colt he bred and trained who is now a hot crossover commodity in the Quarter Horse world. And even though he recently lost his longtime client, Granja Vista del Rio Farm, to John Sadler, he refuses to sing the blues.

"John's got a new batch coming in, so I hope they do better for him," Moreno said from his Santa Anita office. "He's got a couple of good ones already, especially that Hombre Rapido."

Hombre Rapido could be a very good one, especially after his recent win at Santa Anita that marked him as a fast colt with a future. Moreno must watch from afar, but don't waste any tears. At the age of 72, he is still a proud, commanding presence in the saddle or on the ground. And as a charter member of a shrinking circle that includes Noble Threewitt (age 90), Leonard Dorfman (79), and both Warren Stute (80) and his little brother Mel (74), Moreno can claim citizenship as a genuine racetrack oldtimer - if only he would act his age.

"Any time I need inspiration, I just take a look at Noble or Warren," Moreno said. "Sometimes they make me feel old. Hell, I'll probably live to be 90, if I don't get shot by a jealous husband."

First impressions last longest, and it was Moreno who was the first trainer brave enough or crazy enough to invite a rookie publicist into the stall of a dead fit racehorse for a real close look.

The one he chose was the majestic mare Tizna. It was the winter of 1974, and Tizna's star was just beginning to soar. Memory tends to inflate such moments, but ducking beneath that cross chain and entering her private sanctum made me feel like Alice plunging through the looking glass.

Tizna was tall as the wall. Her coat was a rich, coppery bay, accompanied by a jet black mane and tail, and set off by matching stockings and extravagant blaze. She peered over her shoulder at her visitor, who tried hard not to flinch. It was not a friendly gaze. To her credit, she decided that there was nothing worth a fuss and let her mind wander to lunch.

At the time, Tizna was on the verge of winning the first of her two straight Santa Margarita Handicaps. In the early to mid-1970's, such an accomplishment was akin to winning back-to-back Breeders' Cup Distaffs, the competition was so deep. Among the mares Tizna defeated in those two Santa Margaritas were Susan's Girl, Chris Evert, Convenience, Tallahto, La Zanzara, Gay Style, and Quaze Quilt. Look 'em up. It's good reading.

Grass or dirt, East or West, hardpan or high water, Tizna was a top mare for three solid years, and she turned out to be pretty good broodmare, as well. Her daughter Tizly, by Lyphard, produced Cee's Tizzy, who was a very good racehorse. Then he sired Tiznow.

Even with such a legacy, Tizna was first and foremost a racing machine.

In addition to her brace of Santa Margaritas, she won the Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct going a mile and a quarter on the dirt and the Monrovia Handicap twice at Santa Anita going 6 1/2 furlongs on the grass, not to mention the Ramona, the Wilshire, the Santa Monica, and the Hawthorne. Even when thrown to the boys, she didn't blink. She was third to Dulcia and Royal Glint in the 1975 National Thoroughbred Champion-ship.

Tizna won her last stakes race in the 1976 San Gorgonio while carrying 132 pounds, which is like saying that golfers once hit balls made from gutta percha and football helmets were worn without facemasks. Today, a number like 132 on the back of a horse no longer translates, unless there are hurdles involved.

This is not to denigrate the bunch running in the San Gorgonio on Sunday, with its topweight of 120 pounds carried by Tout Charmant. Let's just say that there once was a day when giants roamed the land, and Tizna was very much one of them.