01/07/2004 12:00AM

Sunland Park: Nashville has beaten the odds

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SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Owner-breeder Jeff Keckley and the 9-year-old racehorse Nashville have seen good times and bad times together over the years. Last Friday at Sunland Park, they were riding high after Nashville scored the 20th win of his 36-start career.

Nashville and Keckley's story began in 1992, when Keckley purchased Nashville's dam, Evening's Over, for $3,500 as an unraced 3-year-old from the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association mixed sale. Evening's Over went on to earn $65,000 before she was retired and sent to Walmac International on a foal-sharing agreement and was bred in 1994 to then first-year sire Septieme Ciel.

The resulting foal was Nashville, whom Keckley sold for $67,000 at the 1996 Keeneland September sale. Nashville wound up racing at Turf Paradise, and Keckley, a Houston native who has made his home in El Paso since 1974, was well aware of Nashville's success in Arizona, where Nashville won three stakes as a 3-year-old.

At 4, Nashville underwent the first of the three knee surgeries. By May 29, 2000, Nashville was running for a $7,000 tag at Golden Gate, and Keckley decided to claim him.

"If I would have known how bad off he was, I might not have gone for him," Keckley said.

Keckley brought him back to New Mexico, and, after he won a small stakes at Ruidoso, Nashville was sent to race in the Claiming Crown at Canterbury that August, where he finished seventh. After a disappointing race back at Ruidoso, Keckley decided to give him a rest. Nashville next ran March 31, 2001, and finished second, but he was operated on again soon after that effort.

Nashville returned to the races in time for the fall opening of Sunland's 2001 meet and won four of five starts, running in $5,000 claiming races. Trainer Willie Padilla is careful in his training of Nashville, spacing his races so they are not too close together and also limiting Nashville's training between starts. Nashville, in addition to the knee problems, has tender feet that require constant care, and Padilla serves as Nashville's private groom.

"If you took a good look at this horse, all you could do is wonder how he does it," said Keckley. "Heart is the only answer. He just plain wants to win, and his heart overcomes his infirmities."