01/14/2002 1:00AM

She's so charming - and still racing


ARCADIA, Calif. - Storm Cat might need to take a cold shower.

The commanding victory of Tout Charmant in the San Gorgonio Handicap on Sunday was among the best performances of her career. Backers of Janet thought they had a shot at the eighth pole, but then - bang, zoom! - tough little Tout kicked home with blast from her accomplished past.

Tout Charmant (literal translation: "so charming") was all booked to visit Storm Cat this spring. The candles were lit, the champagne poured, the Barry White CD cued up on the box. Then she went and spoiled everything.

Seems she's not through as a racehorse after all.

Certainly, no one could ask Tout Charmant for another ounce of effort.

After earning more than $1.7 million on the track, she already has bucked the statistical odds. She has spent nearly four solid years in training, with time out only to recover from a bout of colic. Her record of eight wins and nine seconds in 26 starts speaks for itself. Loudly.

Tout Charmant's performance in the San Gorgonio was not simply a hit at the track. Her two-length score echoed eastward to the home of owners Bob and Janice McNair in Houston, and then bounced back to the rolling hills just outside the northern California town of Sebastopol. That is where Tout Charmant was raised, at the Vine Hill Ranch of Bob and Barbara Walter.

"Wasn't that a nice one," said Bob Walter, who will be celebrating his 85th birthday next month. "We raised a glass to her last night."

The Walters bred Tout Charmant from a mating of their homebred stallion Slewvescent (by Seattle Slew) and their homebred mare Charm a Gendarme (by Batonnier). After her successful 3-year-old season, they sold Tout Charmant to the McNairs for just over a cool million dollars.

But out of sight does not mean out of mind. Bob Walter can still picture Tout Charmant as a yearling, learning the ropes right outside the windows of their hilltop home.

"She was a good filly from the start," Walter said. "All the way through, she showed a lot of guts. Always honest."

While trained by Bob Baffert and then Ron McAnally, Tout Charmant made 19 starts at ages 3 and 4, wrapping up her 2000 campaign with a near miss against Perfect Sting in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf and a victory over Tranquility Lake and Happyanunoit in the Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park.

McAnally thought it was time for a rest.

"It was just about this time last year," McAnally said. "I thought I'd let her down a little, kind of let her relax. That might have brought on the problem. Her insides might have relaxed too much, because one morning she developed a colic. She'd never had it before."

Anything can happen when colic strikes, from merely a bad mood to a painful death. Tout Charmant was sent to the Chino Valley Equine Hospital, about 20 miles east of Arcadia.

"It got to the point where they had to go in and see what it was," McAnally went on. "Luckily, they didn't have to take anything out. Normally, if they find a twist, they've got to cut it out. It turned out she had displaced her small colon."

Laid out end to end, the equine intestinal tract measures approximately 27 meters, or about 90 feet. This lariat of tissue is coiled and crammed into the abdominal cavity, after which it requires constant maintenance to promote the clear, efficient transport of digested food. In essence, it's a waste processing plant that operates 24 hours a day. The equine tummy is always gurgling. When it stops, there is trouble.

When Tout Charmant returned to the races late last summer, there was a certain spark missing from her customary style. And even though her fourth-place defense of the WinStar Galaxy Stakes at Keeneland was better than it looked, her two other tries gave McAnally pause. He advised the McNairs that their mare may have reached the end of the line. Arrangements were made to send her to Storm Cat, pending her performance in the San Gorgonio.

As a near champion mare carrying a Storm Cat foal, Tout Charmant would be worth millions. The McNairs have decided instead to fill the Storm Cat appointment with another of their blueblooded mares and let McAnally continue with Tout Charmant on the track.

The trainer's record with top older mares is encouraging. Bayakoa retired at 7 and Paseana made it to 8. But there is always the chance of damaging a breeding prospect that already has reached a lofty value, or at the very least squandering one year in the breeding shed. In a case like this, the sport enjoys all the benefits while the McNairs take all the risk.

"It's never easy," said Bob Walter, who has been in that spot before. "Just guessing right is a tough decision."