01/07/2005 1:00AM

Sweet Catomine running the risk


ARCADIA, Calif. - A great trainer once said that the hardest part of his job was knowing when not to run.

Okay, it was Bill Mott, and it's pretty clear what Mott meant. Everything about the game is geared toward participation. No one gets points for staying in the barn. The pressure to run is built into the system, emanating daily from the owners, horseplayers, track management, agents, and media. And, yes, even from the trainers themselves.

For instance, the brilliant filly Sharp Cat probably should not have run in the Bayakoa Handicap at Hollywood Park in Dec. 1997, even though she was the only horse in the field. Heavy rain on a sealed track had rendered the top of the playing field a slippery, sandy mush. Ron McAnally, who had entered the mares Alzora and Toda Una Dama, scratched them both with barely a second thought.

"I've had more horses get hurt on that kind of track than probably any other kind," he said at the time.

That left Sharp Cat to gallop around in isolated splendor for Wayne Lukas and her owner, Ahmed Salman, recording the first walkover in a major American race since Spectacular Bid scared off the world in the 1980 Woodward. Sharp Cat emerged from the exercise with her protective bandage shredded and her right front heel rubbed raw. The damage was stern enough to knock her out of training, then complications hampered her recovery. She did not race again until the following July - seven months after her walkover - for her new trainer, Wally Dollase.

After sustaining rainfall of more than a foot, with more due Saturday night, the cushion of the Santa Anita main track has been rendered the consistency of good, old-fashioned mud. The base, at least through Friday, was still intact, which means the track crew has had a degree of success in rolling the surface with a protective seal. Still, some horses will flounder, while others will cope, and many more simply will stay in the barn.

Sweet Catomine will not be among them. As of Friday morning, the uncrowned champion of the 2004 class of 2-year-old fillies was on schedule to run in Sunday's $100,000 Santa Ysabel Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. It will be her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Lone Star on Oct. 30.

"Of course, we'll take a look and see what the track conditions are like on Sunday," said Marty Wygod, who bred and owns Sweet Catomine with his wife, Pam. "She needs a mile work, anyway, so it would be good if we could run her. We're hoping they keep it sealed, and maybe get a break in the weather. But obviously we won't run if the track conditions aren't decent."

Julio Canani, Sweet Catomine's trainer, said he has no qualms about running the filly over a muddy track. In fact, he thinks it might be a good idea.

"How about if she doesn't like it?" Canani posed. "Do you want to find out about it when she's in some big Group 1 race? No! This way you find out in an easy little race at home."

The lesson hit hard last spring, when Canani and Wygod took Santa Anita Oaks winner Silent Sighs to Louisville for the Kentucky Oaks. Encountering her first muddy track over a foreign surface, the filly floundered, came back the worse for wear, and never raced again.

Sweet Catomine, on the other hand, already has taken her game on the road to handle a sealed, wet track in Texas.

"Besides that, she's worked in the mud a lot of times," Canani said. "And she's doing great."

Canani lowered his voice for that last part, reluctant to point out the obvious, while lapsing into the reverent tone trainers reserve for the truly transcendent animals. Sweet Catomine, a filly of heroic proportions, brims with possibilities.

Of course, so did champion Storm Flag Flying when she turned 3 in 2003, as well as champion Halfbridled when she made the transition in 2004. Both fillies were unbeaten at 2, yet winless at 3.

History indicates that it takes a very good filly to be champion at both 2 and 3. Busher was the first, in 1944-45, and Silverbulletday was the most recent, in 1998-99. Between them were Doubledogdare, Idun, Bowl of Flowers, Cicada, Tosmah, Gallant Bloom, Ruffian, Open Mind, and Go for Wand. Can Sweet Catomine blossom in the same manner?

"It's the first thing I think about every day," Wygod said. "It only took 40 years, but eventually, if you're lucky and live several lifetimes, you might get one like her.

"I like the fact that she didn't really run that hard at 2," he said. "She won her races very easily. And I think she's grown some more. I wouldn't want to put a stick to her, but I'd say she's 16-2, maybe even 16-3. And you have to realize, there's a big difference between 16 hands and 16-2. It's not just in height - it's everywhere."

As for the possibility of a muddy track Sunday, Wygod said he is certain of one thing: The filly handles it better than the owner.

"I lost my best pair of shoes in that mud at Lone Star," he said. "But it was worth it."