02/22/2002 12:00AM

Through the wringer and back again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It began as just another day at the track. A Friday, in fact, last Jan. 4, and trainer Paul Assinesi was standing innocently at Clocker's Corner with owner Judith Carmel, their attention focused on the Santa Anita training track as the 3-year-old colt Holdthehelm commenced a routine jog.

At the time, Holdthehelm was already an accomplished young veteran, with nine races at six different tracks, a stakes placing, and two wins, the most recent an impressive Dec. 29 effort at 1 1/16 miles. His future looked bright.

Then it all went wrong. Somewhere around the far turn, an iron snapped and Holdthehelm's rider hit the ground. The next thing Assinesi saw was his horse running loose into the far turn, hell-bent for the tunnel, reins flapping madly.

By the time Holdthehelm reached the main backstretch road, he had gathered a full head of steam. Assinesi gave chase, running as fast as his 40-year-old legs would let him. He finally caught up to the colt at the barn of Bob Baffert, hard by the main stable gate. Holdthehelm's next stop would have been the Penny's parking lot at the Santa Anita Mall.

"Dana Barnes helped catch him," Assinesi said, referring to Baffert's veteran exercise rider. "I was concerned about untangling the reins, all worried about his front legs. Then Dana says, in a real soft voice, 'I wouldn't worry too much about that, Paul. I'd worry about that.' And she points to this stream of blood flying out from behind."

Somehow, Holdthehelm had sustained a deep gash on the inside of his left hind leg, just beneath the level of the hock. Assinesi learned later that at one point the loose colt had crashed into the backstretch rail and had fallen.

Starter Jay Slender, who witnessed the carnage from the gate in the six-furlong chute, thought the horse had killed himself.

"I guess he just laid there, stunned," Assinesi recalled. "Then just before Slender got to him, he jumped up and ran off again."

Baffert is in Barn 1-B. Assinesi is stabled in Barn 118. Needless to say, it was a long, bloody jog back home. Along way, Assinesi and his colt drew gasps from those they passed, but to his credit, Holdthehelm kept his cool.

The veterinarians were there when they arrived.

"Because the vein was slit all the way down, not across, they couldn't just clamp it," Assinesi said. "So they put a couple of staples in there and used pressure bandages. That got him stable, but there was still a chance he could have rolled in the middle of the night, torn off the bandage, and bled to death. So we sent him to the clinic."

Enough suspense. The tale has a happy ending. Holdthehelm was vanned 150 miles north to the Alamo Pintado Equine Hospital in Los Olivos, near California's breeding center in the Santa Ynez Valley. Under the supervision of Dr. Doug Herthel, the colt responded to the highly oxygenated atmosphere of a hyperbaric chamber, designed originally to aid burn victims. Infection was avoided, healing was enhanced, and, unbelievably, there was no damage to ligaments, tendons, or bone.

Judith Carmel, who owns Holdthehelm with her son, Brad, was with her colt every step of the way.

"I knew he had a wonderful temperament," she said. "But watching him go through what he did gave me a new appreciation of his personality. He is an incredible little horse."

The recuperative powers of the Thoroughbred never cease to amaze. On the one hand, horses can go permanently wrong in the blink of an eye. Then there are horses like Holdthehelm, who can take a licking and keep on ticking, even when they slice themselves to pieces, or when their stall threatens to come tumbling down.

Ten days after his arrival at Alamo Pintado, Holdthehelm returned to his stall at Santa Anita. A few days after that, he was in harm's way again.

Sort of.

"The horse behind him kicked the stall and got Flick all stirred up next door," Assinesi began. Flick is a 10-year-old gelding whose ears have been pinned back for at least the last five. You don't want to get him mad.

"So Flick kicks the side of his stall," Assinesi continued. "That's the wall nearest the corner where Holdthehelm likes to stand, and the wall just fell apart. When I heard it I ran to his stall, and here he's standing, quiet as could be, surrounded by lumber, with the tube draining his cut still on his leg. Anything could have happened."

Holdthehelm, obviously part cat, still has plenty of lives left to use. In the meantime, he has returned to life as a racehorse. The trauma of Jan. 4 is behind him, and on Sunday at Santa Anita he will get back to the races in the Baldwin Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on the turf.

For Assinesi, the Baldwin represents an important first step toward potentially rich opportunities throughout the rest of Holdthehelm's 3-year-old season. Carmel will be in the house, gazing at her colt with abject admiration.

"Some people tell me I get too close to my horses," she said. "I feel sorry for people who don't. I'm just lucky to be around such a fabulous athlete."

For his part, Holdthehelm can display the raw remnants of his wound, plus a scar on his nose and a shaved patch on his neck where he got his emergency IV fluids. He's probably wondering what's next. But if there is any justice, it will be smooth sailing from now on.