05/11/2007 12:00AM

Seeking more happy endings


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Last week's celebration of the 25th anniversary of Gato del Sol's 1982 Kentucky Derby victory could have been held in a phone booth, with room left over for the horse. As far as Churchill Downs and most of the Derby media were concerned, it was a non-event.

That's not much different from the '82 Derby itself, roundly disparaged as one of the most forgettable runnings in the history of the race. The field that year lost three major players when Flamingo and Florida Derby winner Timely Writer was sidelined with colic, Arkansas Derby winner Hostage was injured, and Blue Grass Stakes winner Linkage passed the race to await the Preakness Stakes.

Ridden by Louisiana's Eddie Delahoussaye, Gato del Sol mowed down what opposition remained with a penetrating move from last place to reach contention at the head of the stretch, then sustained his run to win by 2 1/2 lengths at odds of 21-1. If Calvin Borel was not flat-out copying his fellow Cajun on Street Sense the other day, it was certainly a fitting homage.

Gato del Sol's place in Derby history suffered a further blow when trainer Eddie Gregson announced on the winner's stand - the winner's stand, for Pete's sake! - that his leggy gray colt would not be running in the Preakness, but instead would make his next start in the Belmont Stakes. ABC's Jim McKay nearly dropped his mike, while phone lines began to buzz with indignant protest.

Those of us lucky enough to know and admire Gregson were hardly surprised. Independent thought was one of his strong points, right up to the day in June of 2000 that he took his own life. Even Arthur Hancock, who owned Gato del Sol in partnership with Leone Peters, barely flinched at the news that the Preakness was off the table.

"My philosophy is that the trainer knows best," Hancock said this week from his Stone Farm near Lexington, Ky. "They have an inner voice. They're artists. If that's what Eddie thought was best, that was fine. He'd just won the Derby, my life's dream. He thought Gato could win the Belmont, but not if he ran in the Preakness. I was not about to argue with him."

Gato del Sol went on to finish a distant second to Conquistador Cielo on a sloppy track in the Belmont Stakes. He raced through his 6-year-old season, then was retired to stud at Stone Farm, where he was, in Hancock's words, a flop. He was subsequently sold to a German breeder.

"He was a flop there, too," Hancock said. "Kind of weird. But I always though, hey, if you win the Kentucky Derby, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Be way too much to ask."

When the international star Exceller ended up in a Swedish slaughterhouse in 1997, Hancock began to worry about the possible fate of Gato del Sol.

"Give the credit to my wife, Staci," Hancock said. "She says if it could happen to a horse like Exceller, it could happen to any horse. And it did, to Ferdinand in Japan. Gato had changed hands by then. We located him, bought him, and brought him home."

That was in 1999. Today, at the age of 28, his gray coat gone white, Gato del Sol is a popular pensioner at Stone Farm.

"He's got an acre-and-a-half paddock with lush clover and bluegrass, well water to drink, a couple of shade trees," Hancock said. "If I was a horse, that's where I'd like to be. He's a little bit sluggish behind, walks kind of like an old man walks, but sometimes he'll canter lightly around his paddock. And he still gets a lot of visitors, bringing him carrots and peppermints, getting a chance to see the fairy tale of a Derby winner."

While this particular fairy tale has a happy ending, the Hancocks realize that Gato del Sol is an exception to the rule. The issue of unwanted horses persists in the broader world of performance animals, even as the cruel option of selling for slaughter, just to make that last few bucks, is becoming marginalized.

To that end, Staci Hancock and a group of supporters christened the opening on April 16 of the Kentucky Equine Humane Center (kyehc.org), located in Nicholasville, on Catnip Hill Road.

"We'll take any horse in the state of Kentucky, regardless of breed, as long as they have a negative Coggins, and are surrendered to us," she said.

"We've got 18 horses so far, not surprisingly most of them Thoroughbreds," Staci went on. "Six have been adopted out, two more are coming in today, and we're starting to get calls all the time."

The names on the Hancock's list of founders are encouraging. Many are well-known owners and breeders, the very people who ultimately hold the key to the growing challenge of unwanted Thoroughbreds. They drive the demand, and they create the product. At some point, support for organizations like the Kentucky Equine Humane Center must come from purse funds and breeders awards - a tiny percentage will go a very long way - because at the end of the day, horses are what makes horse racing run. And not all of them are as lucky as Gato del Sol.