09/01/2006 12:00AM

So long to a tough old guy


DEL MAR, Calif. - Saint Liam, lost in a freakish accident last week, never got a chance to leave his mark, beyond a brilliant racing career and what may come of a single season at stud. He made it to his sixth birthday, but not much farther.

At the other end of the scale lived Pirate's Bounty, also lost last week, but quietly and without trauma. He was 31 years old, exceptional by Thoroughbred standards, but there was more to Pirate's Bounty than mere longevity. For California, at least, he was a pillar of the racing community.

Since California breeders got serious, in the late 1800's, there usually has been a go-to stallion who became synonymous with the regional industry, beginning with Norfolk and sons like Emperor of Norfolk and El Rio Rey. Later, there was Alibhai and Khaled, imported from Europe, and then the line of Fleet Nasrullah, down through Gummo and Flying Paster. Pirate's Bounty was very much part of that crowd.

He was a foal of 1975, part of a crop that included Affirmed, Alydar, Believe It, Mac Diarmida, Caesar's Wish, The Very One, Lakeville Miss, and one other horse who ended up a workmate with Pirate's Bounty when both were 4-year-olds during the summer of 1979, stabled in the New York barn of Lefty Nickerson.

"Lefty thought Pirate's Bounty might be a nice horse, but nothing special, while the other horse he

wasn't sure of," said Marty Wygod, who raced Pirate's Bounty and stood him as his River Edge Farm. "One morning they worked seven-eighths together, and the other horse - he was a gelding - worked great and beat Pirate's Bounty maybe a neck. His name was John Henry."

There must have been something about hanging with Lefty that nurtured the long haul. John Henry raced for eight seasons and is still alive, a 31-year-old walking monument at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Pirate's Bounty's racing career was compromised by injury, but as a son of Hoist the Flag he deserved a shot at stud, and he stood at River Edge from 1981 until he was pensioned in 1999.

From the start, Pirate's Bounty began to crank out winners, stamping them darkish bay to brown, with few markings, a medium build, and easily accessible speed. He ended up with 63 stakes winners and 528 winners, and that second number puts him in a very respectable bracket.

"Even some of the best stallions will throw horses that can't even break their maiden," said Ron Ellis, who trained the Pirate's Bounty stakes winners Pirate's Revenge, Echo of Yesterday and Glass Ceiling for Wygod. "In my experience, Pirate's Bounty very rarely threw a horse that couldn't win races, which I always thought was unique."

Dan Hendricks got to know Pirate's Bounty up close and personal when he worked for Richard Mandella in the early 1980's.

"Lefty sent him to Richard as a 5-year-old," said Hendricks, who later trained the Pirate's Bounty stakes winners Private Persuasion and Feverish, also for Wygod. "Richard wanted me to get on him, because he was supposed to be tough to ride. He wasn't that tough, but there was no changing him, which was okay. I have him to thank for buying me a couple of houses."

In the end, it was hard for the people at River Edge to let the old boy go. After all, Pirate's Bounty was as old as the farm itself.

"He was really important to us," Wygod said. "He made a major difference, and he kept the farm going for a long time. We'd made an agreement - when his quality of life had deteriorated to the point where he was hurting and couldn't do things, we would humanely put him to sleep. If anything, we might have waited a little too long. For the last week they actually had to help him get up. I guess we were just so emotionally involved."

It's easy to understand why.

Documentary tells Rollins's story

"When I arrived there, he was not breathing, and he had no heartbeat."

With these words, Dr. David Seftel, the onsite physician at northern California racetracks, pretty much sets the stage for the incredible story behind "A Lifetime of Chance," a half-hour documentary scheduled to be aired the evening of Sept. 5 on HRTV.

Chance Rollins, a hard-knocking, well-respected 36-year-old journeyman who has won more than 2,000 races, was a longshot to survive a weird crash at Bay Meadows last June 11, when his mount, Dr. Ramos, swerved erratically into the fence and sent Rollins flying onto a patch of concrete just inside the rail.

Rollins suffered major head trauma, described in detail, but the documentary does not tease for long. The bulk of the program is devoted to an interview with Rollins at home, miraculously recovered and apparently showing no outward signs of severe damage.

The production is straightforward - no reason to get fancy with such a compelling tale - and the real strength is the down-home Rollins talking about his craft, his family, his future, and mulling the reasons why the accident happened at all.

"No, it don't really bother me," Rollins says as he watches his fall for the first time. "I'm just trying to figure out why the horse did that."