09/27/2006 11:00PM

From start to finish, a champion

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This is the kind of horse Precisionist was.

On the day of his comeback at age 7, after an absence of nearly two years from competition, he stumbled at the start of an allowance race at Hollywood Park, dumped Chris McCarron, then recovered in time to join the field and lead them to the wire.

"Helluva way to get a race into your horse, John," said Charlie Whittingham, needling Precisionist's trainer, John Russell.

"I just hope they don't weight him for the next one off that performance," the wry Russell replied.

Precisionist was a champion. He was a stakes winner 17 times over - 15 of those for trainer Ross Fenstermaker - at just about any distance or condition you'd want to name, from the six furlongs of the Breeders' Cup Sprint to the 1 1/4 miles of the Swaps Stakes.

At age 2, he was a wild-eyed firebrand who won on turf and dirt. At age 3, he beat older horses in the Del Mar Handicap. When he was 4, he did something only three other horses had done before - Round Table, Spectacular Bid, and Hillsdale - and none since, when he won the Strub Series of three races from seven to 10 furlongs over a span of just 40 days.

When he was 5, he could have been Horse of the Year with just one more nudge from his brilliant record, even though he defeated eventual Horse of the Year Lady's Secret in their only two encounters. When he was 6, he fractured his cannon bone, just above the ankle, which was about the only bad step he took in his mostly Bute-less, Lasix-free racing career.

He also proved to have limited fertility, which made his comeback at age 7 all the more entertaining. What else was the handsome red dude to do? Once they caught him, after that first dry run, he broke a 25-year-old record for a mile at Del Mar.

Thankfully, the record is codified in the racing Hall of Fame, which Precisionist joined in 2003. His death on Tuesday, suffering from an inoperable tumor, laid a final, gentle hand on a noble life that lasted 25 years and left few regrets - unless you count the fact that Precisionist was able to sire only four horses that made it to the races.

But you know what? So what. Precisionist turned out to be more than enough horse in his own right to get the point across. Just as Cigar will never be burdened by disappointing offspring, neither was Precisionist held accountable for anything other than the job he was meant to perform. His imprint is as indelible as that of any prolific stallion, just as his memories have been carried on through the years by the people who were lucky enough to breathe the same air.

Precisionist's final months were spent at the Old Friends retirement facility near Lexington, Ky., where former film critic Michael Blowen has gathered together a cast of characters that would rival any John Ford western. Apologies to Ruhlmann, Sunshine Forever, Ogygian, Special Ring, and the others, but Precisionist was definitely the John Wayne among them.

"I felt so honored to just be around him," Blowen said. "And I've never seen such an intelligent horse. He was so smart, he could communicate with somebody as stupid about this stuff as I am. He'd tell me what kind of hay he wanted, where he wanted it, when he wanted to go out and when he wanted to come in."

Last Monday, two-time Eclipse Award-winning photographer Barbara Livingston visited Old Friends to take a few pictures. One of them, the last one ever taken of Precisionist, can be found on the home page of the Old Friends website, at . Though clearly ill, he also looks like a horse at peace. According to Blowen, Precisionist even knew when it was time to go.

"We performed a tracheotomy on him just to help his breathing, so he wouldn't be in much pain," Blowen said. "We knew he didn't have a lot of time left, but we didn't want him to spend it in distress.

"On Monday night, I couldn't sleep, knowing how he was," Blowen said. "We set up a deck chair right outside his stall, so I spent most of the night there. Around four in the morning he started eating hay out of my hand. Then he looked at me and said, 'Okay, this is it. I'm not even interested in the hay.' "

On Tuesday morning it was time. Dr. Holly Aldinger, the veterinarian on call with Old Friends, arranged to be there at 12:30 p.m. An Old Friends volunteer manned the backhoe and prepared Precisionist's plot, located under a tree between the final resting places of champion turf mare Estrapade and Breeders' Cup Turf winner Fraise.

"It was about noon when I decided to take him out of his stall," Blowen said. "It was a perfectly sunny day. He looked around and nibbled a little grass. Then he walked right over there with his head held high, and stood right next to the grave until the vet got there. I'm telling you, if I can go with 10 percent of the dignity of this guy, I'll be fine."

That is the kind of horse Precisionist was.