12/16/2002 12:00AM

A short and sweet victory


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Please don't get the wrong idea. On any given weekend, a Thoroughbred racetrack is still the place to be. And certainly last Saturday was no exception at Hollywood Park, where Ron McAnally, Pat Valenzuela, Laffit Pincay, and the entire Dollase clan put on an excessive display of winning behavior.

Valenzuela won three, including the Starlet Stakes aboard Elloluv for trainer Craig Dollase, who later won a maiden race with the filly Thunder's Echo, while in between his father, Wally D., won a $40,000 claimer on the turf with Dynamistic.

For his part, McAnally had a field day for born-again owner Nelson Bunker Hunt, cashing an all-Chilean parlay with Consignada in an allowance race and Piensa Sonando in the Native Diver Handicap. Since Pincay is the only guy still in white pants who actually rode against Native Diver (that was 1967), it was entirely appropriate that McAnally had him on board.

Just a few miles down the road, however, straddling the north Orange County towns of Cypress and Los Alamitos, a whole different brand of top-class racing was about to unfold, where names like Allred, Vessels, Schvaneveldt, and Childers are uttered with the same tone of reverence as Phipps, Frankel, and Hancock. As the sun set on Hollywood Park, the stage lights came up at Los Alamitos Race Course on a cool, clear night for California's most famous quarter mile - the $500,000 Champion of Champions.

Imagine the Breeders' Cup Sprint squeezed into a thimble. The whole thing takes less than 22 seconds, which is a bit longer than I like to go without blinking. The Quarter Horse world is a hyperactive parallel universe in which the animals kind of look like Thoroughbreds, the jockeys sort of ride like Thoroughbred jockeys, and the players pick and choose among them as if the answers are right there in the past performances.

For a hidebound Thoroughbred fan, a journey to the land of the Quarter Horse is like a tumble through the looking glass. Conversion to the metric system is easier. Lengths become noses and heads. Time is parsed in hundredths - just like Thoroughbreds - but among Quarter Horse people those hundredths are the coin of the realm. These animals are bred for one purpose, and that purpose is speed. The rest is wasted conversation.

And what beasts they are, with short, thickly muscled necks, wide, rippling chests, and big, bass-drum behinds designed for nothing other than maximum thrust. On this particular night, the best of the breed was on display. They had to be, just to get into the Champion of Champions field.

Since its inception in 1972, the Champion of Champions has been the key race in the determination of the title of Quarter Horse World Champion. This is equivalent to the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, which would make the Champion of Champions a quick-twitch version of the Breeders' Cup Classic. There's a lot riding on that split instant the gates fly back.

But that's the rush. The best thing about a Quarter Horse race is its blissful lack of variables. It is the racquetball of the horse racing world.

There is only one true consideration: the break. Tactics? Don't make me laugh. Once cleanly from the gate, the fastest horse usually wins.

The second best thing about the Quarter Horse world is its constant symbiosis with Thoroughbreds, especially in California. It is useless to deny the impact of one upon the other.

The Frank Vessels family built Los Alamitos in 1948 and later sold it to Marje Everett and Hollywood Park. R.D. Hubbard, who took control of Hollywood from Everett, also runs Ruidoso Downs, the top Quarter Horse track in New Mexico. Horsemen through the years, from Farrell Jones and Henry Moreno to D. Wayne Lukas, Terry Lipham, and Bob Baffert, have made an impact in both arenas.

Kim Kessinger had a chance, but he said no thanks. A Colorado rancher from Akron (not far from Brush, the birthplace of Pat Day), he had Baffert training his Quarter Horses in the 1980's and was having a pretty good time. Then, around 1990, Baffert jumped ship.

"I didn't go with him on his Thoroughbred deal," Kessinger said Saturday night. "Bob gave me an opportunity to get in on different ones, and some pretty good ones, too. But my loyalty laid with the Quarter Horses. I like these people."

There was not a whiff of regret in his voice, especially since Kessinger and his partner, Jim Geiler, were at that moment standing on top of the Quarter Horse world. Their 4-year-old gelding Whosleavingwho ran off and hid from his field in the Champion of Champions, with a time just a tenth off the record set by the legendary Dash for Cash. The winning margin was just three-quarters of a length, but in this game, that's domination.

"When I saw we got away good, I knew he was gonna be tough, because he can really run at the end," Kessinger said. "Exciting, isn't it?"

Yes it was. I'm glad I didn't blink.