06/27/2008 12:00AM

Timing really is everything


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It has happened before, and it will happen again. Just because entries are taken, hotel reservations are made, and headlines are written in breathless anticipation, that does not mean the horse is along for the ride.

It would have been a kick to have seen Heatseeker in action on Saturday in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He is a good older horse and getting better, proof on the hoof that patience pays. The fact that trainer Jerry Hollendorfer pulled the plug on the Gold Cup on Thursday, when a small amount of filling was detected near an ankle, says a lot about the value he places on early detection - not to mention the value of the horse.

The good news is that Heatseeker could race again. The bad news is that he is a Thoroughbred, and predictions are worthless until he recovers and stands hard training.

"At least I'm hoping we're not done with Heatseeker," said Will de Burgh, who has the pleasure of owning the horse. "It will be a couple of days before Jerry knows for certain what we're up against. If it's a matter of months before he can go back to training, it becomes a tough decision. Does one run him next year and then not have him retire until he's a 7-year-old?"

This reporter votes yes, of course. But it's a selfish vote, based more on Heatseeker's ability to entertain fans and raise the level of competition than his potential to enrich the gene pool, as well as his owners.

"I don't think he's done enough to maximize his value," de Burgh noted. "He could have won the Gold Cup, then perhaps the Pacific Classic, and been one of the two horses to beat in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He had the opportunity at least to go out as a really significant new stallion."

Now, it's a roll of the dice. If de Burgh and company are lucky, Heatseeker's problem will be no more serious than the one encountered by Neil Drysdale with A.P. Indy, who was scratched the morning of the 1992 Kentucky Derby because of a foot injury. A.P. Indy returned to competition a few weeks later to win the Peter Pan Stakes, then the Belmont Stakes, and ended his season winning the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.

Down through racing history, there have been any number of notable 11th-hour scratches on the doorstep of major events. Sir Gaylord and Gen. Duke both were Derby favorites, entered, injured, and scratched. Drysdale had another piece of high-profile bad luck when Spinster winner Gorgeous had to be withdrawn from the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff on the eve of the race. And then there was that morning in 1977, at Hollywood Park, when the young trainer Richard Mandella was informed that his chances to win the Cinema Handicap that afternoon had radically improved with the last-minute scratch of J.O. Tobin.

"I don't believe you," Mandella told the messenger. "Don't be messing with my head." But it was true, and Bad n' Big gave Mandella his first significant stakes win.

In 1998, the Santa Anita Handicap was shaping up as a showdown between Silver Charm and Gentlemen, two of the best horses in the land. They had chased away all but three hopeless opponents, and the track spent piles of advertising cash on the prerace hype.

On the day before the race, it was announced by trainer Bob Baffert that Silver Charm had to be scratched.

"It was on his first day back to the track after a work," said trainer Eoin Harty, Baffert's assistant at the time. "As I watched him jog the wrong way, he was clearly on the nod."

As it turned out, Silver Charm was reacting to a shoe nail that was placed too high and hit the quick. This is about as minor as an injury can get - a day or so and everything's usually fine - but the timing could not have been worse.

"Trainers are always in some form of denial," Harty said. "The foot always seems to get the blame because it's something you can take care of. But more often than not, it's wishful thinking, because it's something else. My foreman likes to say, 'It's never the foot.' Only in Silver Charm's case, it was the foot."

Silver Charm, no worse for wear, got a few days off, then went to the Middle East to win the Dubai World Cup, run just three weeks after the Santa Anita Handicap.

"What's really too bad is that Jerry and his crew have been so built-up about Heatseeker the last few months," Will de Burgh noted. "Jerry told me one day how it was amazing having a really good horse like this in the barn changes everyone's temperament.

"I supposed Heatseeker could have run - there are ways to bring a small filling down - but there would have been a risk of even more damage," de Burgh added. "And after what's happened the last couple years, where you've seen horses badly injured in big races, that's the last thing we'd want to see happen. I do wonder if we're running our horses too fast for their own biomechanics, though, and that's why these things occur. A big, strong horse like Heatseeker runs so bloomin' fast that you're always worried anything could happen."