12/05/2002 12:00AM

Snake Mountain's peak still unknown

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - The road to success for Snake Mountain had several sharp turns.

As a 2-year-old in 2000 he showed considerable promise, and his trainer, Ireland's Aidan O'Brien, was looking forward to his 3-year-old campaign with anticipation. Unfortunately, it didn't work out. And though O'Brien had another brilliant year in 2001, Snake Mountain wasn't one of his many stars.

Doug Koch, the owner of Berkshire Stud near Pine Plains, N.Y., was looking for a horse to race that might also have some stud value. He was alerted by an agent in Ireland to a ridgling named Snake Mountain and was able to buy him at a Tattersalls sale for $30,000. That was a modest price for a colt by A.P. Indy out of Coup de Genie, a stakes winner of more than $400,000 and a champion 2-year-old filly in France for the Niarchos family.

Jimmy Jerkens took over the training of Snake Mountain on the horse's arrival in New York, and it soon became evident that behavioral problems dictated he should be gelded. Following surgery, he began to progress in his training, and when he made his U.S. debut at Aqueduct on Feb. 24, he won going a distance by an eye-catching margin of 12 lengths.

His American record now reads 6 victories from 9 starts with earnings of more than $240,000. Last month at Aqueduct he became a stakes winner, charging from off the pace under Jose Santos to score in the nine-furlong Stuyvesant. He will seek a seventh win on Saturday in the $100,000 Queens County Handicap at 1 3/16 miles and most handicappers see him again as the one to beat.

"When we bought him, we thought that some changes in his lifestyle might make a difference," Koch said. "He was in a different training program, he was switching from grass to dirt, and he was now a gelding. He won his first three American starts, showing a little more in every race. The fact is that he only ran one bad race all year, and that was on a sloppy track at Saratoga when he had some traffic problems with a horse who had dumped his rider.

Koch is confident Snake Mountain, though he has yet to win beyond nine furlongs, is capable of winning longer races, such as the Queens County. If he is right, some new vistas may open up for him next season, including a possible return to the turf.

Koch, a past president of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders Association, has some 25 mares at his Berkshire Stud. The farm had an excellent year, having bred such stakes winners as Private Emblem, winner of the Arkansas Derby; Rhum, who won the Ticonderoga Stakes on the New York Showcase program; and Sherpa Guide, winner of the Evan Shipman Stakes at Belmont Park.

He notes there is an upbeat spirit to the breeding industry in New York, and cites increased prices the last few years at the preferred sale of New York-breds at Saratoga.

Oft-raced Toccet loves this game

Toccet, the Remsen winner, is bound for California and an appearance in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 21. That would be his fourth start since winning the Champagne Stakes on Oct. 5, but trainer John Scanlan reports that Toccet, an Awesome Again colt, is full of life and retains his enthusiasm for racing.

Phil Johnson, the Hall of Fame horseman who saddled Volponi to an upset triumph in the Breeders' Cup Classic, says that trainers who exercise some supervision in the breaking and early training of their horses, have an edge in knowing which of their 2-year-olds are suited to or can handle frequent starts. That was the case with Toccet, Scanlan confirms, and it was also the case with the great Native Dancer.

In his compelling "Native Dancer," to be published in May by Warner Books, the talented author John Eisenberg notes that the Grey Ghost won four stakes at Saratoga in a 26-day period as a 2-year-old and went on to an unforgettable campaign at 3. Busy schedules? Some horses can handle them.