02/25/2003 12:00AM

Santa Anita Cap double tough


ARCADIA, Calif. - Milwaukee Brew, who will try to win the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap for a second time on Saturday, could pick a lot of things easier to do. Like fly, tapdance, or ride a Harley, just for starters.

In 65 runnings such history has been made only once. Even then, it was not a clean deal. After winning with flair in 1981, John Henry's second victory in the Santa Anita Handicap of 1982 required a ruling from the stewards that disqualified Perrault.

The bar was set high and hard from the start. Azucar won the first Santa Anita Handicap in 1935, but he could do no better than fourth in 1936.

Top Row, the winner in 1936, tried again in 1938 but was nowhere to be found at the end, finishing 15th of 18 runners.

Kayak was much the best in 1939 and was primed to win his second straight in 1940. The script read differently, however, and his stablemate Seabiscuit seized the day. Whether or not Kayak was best has been open to historical debate. Presumably, the movie will clear it up.

In 1961, Prove It was overpowering. A year later he could do no better than ninth behind unsung stablemate Physician. Then, as a 6-year-old in 1963, Physician could have made history when he stepped up to defend his title. Instead, he finished eighth.

By the mid-1960's, after 1965 winner Hill Rise failed in 1966, the trend was hard to ignore. The Metropolitan Mile, Brooklyn, Suburban, and Jockey Club Gold Cup had repeat winners all the time (as long as they were horses like Devil Diver, Discovery, Crusader, and Kelso). But the Santa Anita Handicap was a tough nut to crack more than once.

Crystal Water tried and couldn't do it after winning in 1977 (Vigors blew his doors off in 1978). Best Pal tried twice after winning in 1992 and nearly got there in 1995 when Urgent Request beat him a head. Urgent Request returned in 1996 to finish last.

If ever there was a horse destined to repeat - other than the mythic John Henry - it was Nodouble. His victory in the 1969 Santa Anita Handicap was a comprehensive piece of work, coming in a first-rate field that included champion mare Gamely, Quicken Tree, Rising Market, and Most Host.

"That horse was something special," said Bert Sonnier, who trained Nodouble. "If he was around today, he'd be winning six or seven million dollars."

Sonnier, who was in Los Angeles this week visiting his son-in-law Alex Solis and a passel of grandkids, was a babe of 30 when he brought Nodouble west during the winter of 1969. As a 3-year-old the year before, the colt won the Arkansas Derby and defeated older horses in the Hawthorne Gold Cup. It was the Gold Cup, at a mile and a quarter, that tipped Sonnier to Nodouble's hole card.

"He loved the mile and a quarter," Sonnier said. "I don't think he ever ran a bad race at a mile and a quarter."

He didn't, as a matter of fact, until Nodouble tried to defend his Santa Anita Handicap title in 1970.

At the time, Nodouble was reigning as America's handicap champion. His 1969 season included wins in not only the Santa Anita Handicap, but also the Brooklyn and a repeat in the Hawthorne Gold Cup. He was disqualified after finishing first in the Strub Stakes, and added seconds to champion 3-year-old Arts and Letters in the Met Mile, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup.

When Sonnier produced Nodouble as a 5-year-old in 1970, it appeared as if nothing had changed. He won the San Pasqual at Santa Anita right off the bench, carrying 128 pounds in the bargain. Sonnier knew, though, that his horse was running on borrowed time. In his last race as a 3-year-old, in November of 1968, he had bled visibly while running in the Roamer Handicap at Aqueduct. The trainer had to deal with the condition from that day forth.

"You could hardly do anything for them at the time," Sonnier said. "There was something called Estro-IV that would help a little bit, but not enough. In the mornings I'd use a medication called Naquazone, but you couldn't use it to race. And Lasix wasn't legal yet."

A bleeder with ability was a tricky proposition 33 years ago. Sonnier could push Nodouble only so far in his training and racing, then he had to back off. His record earned a 130-pound package for the 1970 Handicap against Quicken Tree, Fiddle Isle, and Snow Sporting, but Nodouble was never really in the hunt. He finished eighth, raced five more times, then was retired.

"By then I was afraid he might hemorrhage real bad," Sonnier said. "If I could have run him on Lasix, he could have kept going, because he retired perfectly sound."

So did Sonnier, three years ago, but now he is having second thoughts. After spending time on his Ocala farm, he has been back at the track with a horse this winter at Gulfstream Park.

"I might have quit too soon," Sonnier said with a smile. "It gets a little boring sometimes. One thing's for sure, though. A horse like Nodouble comes around only once in a lifetime."