08/08/2006 12:00AM

A touch of sweet in a bitter season

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Kevin Coady / Coady Photography
Showing Up, winning the Colonial Turf Cup, will try to make it 2 for 2 on the turf in Saturday's Secretariat.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - How could you describe a season during which a horse owner sent two undefeated colts to the Kentucky Derby? A season when one of those colts won the Derby with an electrifying performance, and then, two weeks later, in the crush of Triple Crown stardom, broke his leg yards into the Preakness Stakes, touching off a equine-hospital drama that is still unfolding. Is it a brilliant year? Tragic?

Or just unfathomably strange?

"That's probably a good way to term it," said Roy Jackson, who with his wife, Gretchen, has owned horses for 30 years.

But slowly, hopefully, the tragic element is fading, as Barbaro, with his casts, recovery slings, his arsenal of get-well gifts, soldiers on at the George Widener Hospital for Large Animals just miles away from the Jackson's Lael Farm in southeast Pennsylvania. "He's holding his own," Jackson said. "He wants to live."

As for the brilliance of the Jacksons' season - that is still a work in progress. Showing Up, their other Derby colt, finished sixth of 20 in the Derby. When he returned to the races June 24, he won the $1 million Colonial Turf Cup, and won it with authority. Where Barbaro once was the best 3-year-old turf horse in the country, now Showing Up might be, and he can cement that classification Saturday on Arlington Million Day. Showing Up, the Jacksons, and trainer Barclay Tagg are coming back to the Midwest for the first time since May, and Showing Up will try to continue his ascension in the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes.

In accomplishment, Showing Up has not entered Barbaro's realm, but the Derby is the only blemish on a five-start career, and Showing Up probably has not hit his ceiling.

"I think he's a top-notch horse," said Jackson. "The fact that he's done it, like Barbaro, on the dirt and the grass, I think he's got a lot of ability."

Showing Up showed so much ability early in his late-starting career that Tagg began pondering a Kentucky Derby run after Showing Up had made only two starts, winning his career debut and an entry-level allowance race during the Gulfstream Park meet. Tagg, of course, knows first-hand what kind of horse that requires, having won the 2003 Derby with Funny Cide. But he has also had horses who might have gone to the Derby and been worse for it, such as the high-class Roo Art, whom Tagg trained in the mid-1980's.

"The people who owned Roo Art wanted to go to the Derby, and I didn't want to at all," Tagg said last week from Saratoga. "I fought kicking and screaming not to take him there. This horse, I just thought this was a big, efficient horse who was the perfect one."

What may have derailed Showing Up in the Derby - Barbaro beat him by 10 lengths - were early soundness problems that delayed his first race until February. "If we'd have been lucky with him and gotten a few races at 2, I think he'd been a hell of a Triple Crown candidate," Tagg said.

It was Tagg who picked Showing Up out of a 2-year-old in training sale during the spring of 2005: Buying for the Jacksons, who race as Lael Stable, Tagg would have paid $100,000, but he got Showing Up, a son of the unproven stallion Strategic Mission's first crop, for $60,000. But while Tagg raced at Saratoga that summer, Showing Up struggled along at Belmont Park.

"He was training, but I wasn't getting anywhere with him," Tagg said. "You know, one step forward, two steps back. He'd come back lame a lot. He'd jog off the track nice, he'd pull up well, and he'd come back sore. You'd go over his feet, his legs, couldn't find anything wrong with him."

Showing Up failed to blossom in the autumn, when Barbaro started winning. But at winter quarters in Florida, Tagg's assistant Robin Smullen came back one day from a routine gallop aboard Showing Up with a noteworthy opinion. "She said, 'Boy, this horse feels like the real thing if you're looking for a mile-and-a-quarter horse,' " Tagg said.

And Tagg - surprising to some - was.

When Funny Cide won the Derby, he came to Churchill just two days before the race, and Tagg avoided the pre-Derby media crush. Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness and headed to Belmont Park with a good chance to win the Triple Crown. There, the media hordes descended, and by the time the Belmont had passed, Tagg had been labeled by some as a grouch.

"I think I got a bad rap on that," he said.

Tagg, weathered, ultra-practical, and down-to-earth, had been training horses long before the Triple Crown camera crews began pointing at him, and he knew lean years before the fat. While he understood his obligations to the press with Funny Cide, he also knew that his horse came first.

"You can't have a horse getting ready for a race like that with 50,000 cameras poking in his face," Tagg said.

Still, Tagg was more than happy to go through it all again with Showing Up. "You get to a certain age, and you're dying to have a horse go to the Derby," he said.

Showing Up got there, and Smullen was right about the colt's distance ability - but the Derby was not the right race. In fact, Showing Up had a career-changing experience a few weeks after the Derby, when he first set foot on a turf course.

"He kind of hobbles around on the dirt, takes forever to warm up," said Tagg. "But when we took him over to grass for the first time, he just walked right on, walked right off, like 'Where's this been all my life?' "

In the 1 3/16-mile Colonial Turf Cup, Showing Up rated some 15 lengths behind a runaway pacesetter and finished with a powerful run that propelled him to a 3 1/4-length victory. Go Between, who finished third in the Colonial Turf Cup, validated Showing Up's performance three weeks later, when he won the $1 million Virginia Derby, a race Tagg skipped to give Showing Up more time between starts.

Showing Up had a bruised foot that kept him out of the Wood Memorial in April, and he came out of his win in the Lexington Stakes prior to the Derby with a deep puncture wound. And last week, another scare: Out on the Saratoga grass course, a horse kicked Showing Up in the hind leg, opening a cut that had to be closed with a veterinary clamp.

But Showing Up has healed, and flesh wounds pale in comparison to Barbaro's ordeal. Barbaro is trying to re-grow the hoof that was cut away when laminitis struck his good hind leg last month. The other leg, the one that broke, is still in a cast, bone fused with metal.

"It's been difficult," Roy Jackson said. "It's been a lesson in just taking things one day at a time. It's difficult to see a horse, any horse, in such an unnatural situation. We're pretty positive people, and it's one of those things there's no point feeling sorry for yourselves. You just get on with things."

Having a horse like Showing Up couldn't make a person forget Barbaro, but it could add another twist to an already unfathomable year.