09/03/2006 11:00PM

A tougher road than most

Trainer Chris Paasch, after an extended struggle with an often-fatal disease, finds his barn having a prime year.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Only in the past few years, and most notably this summer, has trainer Chris Paasch registered on the national scene. It might seem he has come from nowhere, perhaps even back from the dead. Truth is, he has.

Paasch has been given a second chance at life, and is making the most of it. After nearly succumbing several times to an aggressive cancer-like disease that he battled for a decade, Paasch has rebounded in every way possible. He is healthy, he is happily married, he hooked up with an owner who opened his pocketbook to buy the quality of horses with whom Paasch had rarely been associated, and this summer he has seen it all pay off, with a plethora of 2-year-old winners.

Most notable among the 2-year-olds Paasch trains for owner Charles Cono is Prime Ruler, who scored a dazzling victory in his debut at Del Mar on Aug. 5 and will be one of the leading contenders in the Grade 2, $250,000 Del Mar Futurity on Wednesday. He also was to send out She's Included in the Grade 1, $250,000 Del Mar Debutante on Monday. Earlier this summer, Paasch won Del Mar's Best Pal Stakes with the colt Principle Secret. He even won a race at Saratoga when he sent the New York-bred colt Baltimore Drive back East to defeat maidens in his first start.

For a barn that numbers just 22 horses, including older runners, that's quite a haul.

"Our goal is to go to the Breeders' Cup with a couple of really live horses," Paasch said.

Nearly two decades ago, he just wanted to live. Paasch, 50, was found to have a deadly disease, histiocytosis X, in 1987 when he was still struggling to get established as a trainer in northern California after relocating from his native upstate New York. Thus began an odyssey that took him to several medical facilities and through a battery of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, before finally coming out the other side. But it was a long road there.

According to the National Institutes of Health website, histiocytosis X usually strikes children between the ages of 5 and 10, and is often fatal. It is believed to be an autoimmune disease, in which the body turns on itself, destroying cells rather than fighting an infection. In adults, histiocytosis X often attacks the lungs, and half the patients wind up with loss of lung function, according to the NIH.

"I kept getting collapsing lungs," Paasch said the other morning while watching his horses train from the box seats at Del Mar.

Paasch was seen by specialists in San Francisco, then at the renowned City of Hope in Southern California, before finally abandoning training to devote all his energy to his health.

"In 1990, they listed my case as terminal," he said. "I had had two partial removals of my right lung, my liver was involved, and my kidneys. They said they couldn't help me, but that there was a doctor in South Carolina who might be able to.

"I moved to South Carolina. The doctor there would mix his own chemos. I had nuclear medication, radiation, and five surgeries. Two years later, he told me, sorry, he couldn't help me."

Paasch was referred to one last doctor, Mark Heaney, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

"I'll never forget him," Paasch said. "He saved my life.

"He told me my condition was very grave," Paasch said. "He said he probably couldn't help, but that there were some new medications that had come out. But he said to put my things in order, and to not expect to come out."

Paasch had more chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, including a procedure in which his lungs were taken out of his chest cavity, then put back in after chemicals were applied to his cavity to make the lungs adhere to the chest.

"That way, they can't collapse," Paasch said.

He emerged from Sloan-Kettering missing half his right lung and the lower lobe of his left lung. He had surgery to remove his gall bladder. He had a malfunctioning pituitary gland for which he needs medication. But he was alive.

Paasch, who has two adult daughters from previous relationships, saw his second marriage dissolve during his cancer treatment. But after returning to the racetrack in northern California, he met trainer Bonnie Lord, and in 2000, they married.

"When we first met, he said, 'I just want you to know, I might only be here a week, or a month, or a year,' " Lord said.

In 2001, with owners Rod and Lorraine Rodriguez backing him, Paasch had his first experience with top-class horses, including Collect Call, who finished third in the Kentucky Oaks. That summer, Paasch had a strong meet at Del Mar, including a second-place finish with Kamsack in the Del Mar Futurity. He caught the attention of Cono, an octogenarian real-estate tycoon and philanthropist from San Diego.

Paasch and the Rodriguezes opened Victory Haven Training Center in Lexington, Ky., but that partnership ended four years ago. Paasch returned to California, and began what turned into an exclusive relationship with Cono.

Their best horse, until now, was Diplomat Lady, who won the Beaumont Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland earlier this year. But beginning with the current crop of 2-year-olds, Cono increased his budget, and Paasch found several nuggets. Prime Ruler, by Orientate, cost $200,000 four months ago at the Barretts May 2-year-old sale.

Paasch feels indebted to Cono for giving him a chance with top-class runners.

There are three lawn jockeys in the paddock at Del Mar, and one of them is painted every year in the winner's silks from the Futurity.

"For Charlie's sake, I'd love to see his silks painted in the paddock," Paasch said. "He gets this look on his face after he wins a race, like a kid that got a cookie from the cookie jar and his mom didn't catch him. He deserves all the credit for this."