12/07/2001 1:00AM

Three surgeries later, Sky Jack good as new


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - This time last year, Sky Jack was king of the hill. And it was a very steep hill.

Age 4 at the time, Sky Jack had just won the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park by seven lengths. In the process, he ran the two-turn

1 1/8 miles in 1:46.81. His Beyer Speed Figure of 122 was the best recorded in North America during the 2000 season.

Better than anything recorded by Tiznow, Albert the Great, Red Bullet, Golden Missile, Captain Steve, Beautiful Pleasure, Riboletta, or Fusaichi Pegasus.

"I was measuring my head for a turban," said Sky Jack's trainer, Doug O'Neill. "We were going to Dubai."

Then, a few weeks after the Native Diver, Sky Jack's right knee came up hot. It had happened before, when he was 3, when the same knee needed a couple of small chips removed. This time, however, X-rays revealed a bad new bone chip, located in a weight-bearing area of the joint. Dr. Wayne McIllwraith performed the surgery at his Los Alamitos clinic, and Sky Jack was sent home to mend at the Ren-Mar Thoroughbred Farm of his owners, Rene and Margie Lambert.

Before that, Sky Jack had won the California Cup Classic, placed in a stakes at Fairplex Park, and won three allowance races. For a son of the California stallion Jaklin Klugman (third-place finisher in the 1980 Kentucky Derby), he was already an overachiever.

The tale could have ended there, with Sky Jack lingering in the memory as nothing more than a shooting star across the late autumn California scene, finished after just 10 starts and two knee operations, just as his potential was being revealed.

Some horses refuse to go quietly, though. Sky Jack has come back for more. He worked three-eighths of a mile at Hollywood Park last weekend, almost a year to the day after his remarkable Native Diver. And even though this year's Native Diver will be run without him on Sunday, Sky Jack set the bar pretty high.

"He'd been out at Hideaway Farm in San Jacinto with Gary Howard for about two months," O'Neill said. "When he came in, around the middle of November, he looked super."

This was a far cry from the Sky Jack of last April, when his recuperation at Ren-Mar was disrupted by a severe bout of colic. He was admitted to the San Luis Rey Equine Hospital and underwent surgery at the hands of Dr. Steve Trestle to empty and replace the colon. Plumbing repair as a veterinary art form.

"He's never been a horse who carries a ton of weight," O'Neill said. "But if you'd have seen him after he went through that procedure, he looked like something off one of those PETA brochures. His hind end was sunk in. All his ribs were showing. He must have been down to 900 pounds."

Home cooking must have saved him. Sky Jack was foaled and raised at the Lamberts' farm, and the crew there spent the next several months nursing him back to health. The fact that he is back breezing, and sending O'Neill positive signals, is nothing less than miraculous.

"For all his speed in the afternoon, he's as easy and comfortable to gallop in the morning as any exercise rider could ask for," the trainer said.

"Actually, he's borderline lazy, which is great. He's got so much natural speed and stamina, I love to see him conserve his energy to the fullest. If he can stay sound, he should be able to bounce back."

Sky Jack is not O'Neill's first good horse. He won the 2000 Fantasy Stakes with Classy Clara and sent her out to finish third in the Kentucky Oaks. It makes perfect sense, however, that the 33-year-old O'Neill would knock off the Native Diver early in his career, since one of his first jobs at the racetrack was grooming horses for Hector Palma, who worked for the legendary Buster Millerick during the Native Diver years.

"If I had a dollar for every Buster story, I'd be a rich man," O'Neill said.

For now, he'll settle for a happy ending to the latest chapter of the Sky Jack story. It is too early to predict, but even after a few weeks of galloping and a breeze, O'Neill is letting himself think that Sky Jack could rhyme with comeback in a big way. And with Tiznow retired, General Challenge a memory, and Budroyale a shadow of his former glory, the field is wide open for a California hero to step up.

"We just re-X-rayed that right knee the other day," O'Neill said. "Knock on wood, everything looks great. And so far, he's not showing any signs of mental stress at being back in training.

"We try to take him out when there's not a lot of traffic," the trainer added. "But every now and then he'll be galloping along and a worker will come by, and he'll try to go after him. It looks like the competitive edge is still there."