09/20/2006 12:00AM

Two deaths with unclear link

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The odds that two Thoroughbreds from opposite sides of the continent could spend less than a week stabled next to each other in unfamiliar surroundings and then be killed by the same rare equine disease less than one year later are staggering. Absolutely staggering.

Take the bet.

Lost in the Fog and Knights Templar, both born and raised in Florida, were housed in the same out-of-the-way corner of Barn 11 on the Belmont Park backstretch in the days leading up to the 2005 Breeders' Cup World Championships. Lost in the Fog was taking his sterling 10-0 record into the Breeders' Cup Sprint as a heavy favorite, while Knights Templar was going into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies off a 13 1/4-length romp in the Mazarine Stakes at Woodbine.

They both lost their races, but that did not stop their admirers from stepping up at the polls. Lost in the Fog won the Eclipse Award as North America's best sprinter, and in Canada, Knights Templar was hailed with a Sovereign Award as champion 2-year-old filly. The future looked bright.

"We had some incredible offers for her going into the Breeders' Cup," said Danny Vella, a two-time Sovereign Award winner as Canada's leading trainer, who owned Knights Templar in a partnership group called Clover IV.

"We decided, though, that this was the type of filly we'd wanted all our lives," Vella said. "We loved her, and we wanted to race her and breed her. Who knows? She might have even gone to Lost in the Fog, since he was probably heading to stud in Kentucky."

Such dreams have disappeared now, like tears in rain. Lost in the Fog died last Sunday in his stall at the Golden Gate Fields stable of trainer Greg Gilchrist. Some six weeks earlier, on July 27, Knights Templar took her last breath at Woodlands Farm, in Hillsburgh, Ontario, about a 45-minute drive from Vella's stable at Woodbine. Both young horses shared the same grim fate, wracked with lymphatic cancer and mercifully euthanized to prevent further suffering.

It was in early May, not long after she finished second in the Star Shoot Stakes at Woodbine, that Knights Templar started showing symptoms of a virus that never seemed to let go.

"We biopsied a lot of her lymph nodes when it started to get really bad, and it was a 100 percent diagnosis," Vella said. "Steroids kept her comfortable for a period of time. But she more or less wilted away and got to a point where she was so weak we had to put her down. We had talked about chemo and all that, but for me, it was pretty tough. I'd just gone through it all with my wife before losing her last year to cancer."

Danny and Theresa Vella had been married 28 years.

"You see it happen with a person, and they can make their own decisions," Vella said. "But with a horse, you like to have a little more common sense, especially when there's really nothing you can do. I went out to Woodlands to see her fairly often. The visits were hard. But in your heart, you knew you had to do it. Being a true champion, she was happy to the end."

Knights Templar was immediately cremated. Lost in the Fog, however, underwent an autopsy on Monday at the University of California at Davis, where his malignancies were first discovered in mid-August.

"The vet said, 'Greg, you have no idea how tough this horse was,' " Gilchrist reported Tuesday evening. "Not only would a normal horse have been dead two or three months ago, it was amazing this horse kept his presence, kept eating and drinking. One of the tumors was the whole length of his back, and was starting to wind itself around his spine."

Vella contacted Gilchrist during Lost in the Fog's ordeal, if only to share what Knights Templar had been through. The idea that a horse could "catch" cancer was pretty far-fetched.

"I'm doing a bit of research into it with some veterinarians that specialize in internal medicine," Vella said. "So far, all I've heard is that there's never been any research done on that type of thing with horses. But with people and with cats I'm told there is some association with a type of virus.

"Certainly, you'd at least like to find out if there is a chance of that to prevent it from happening," Vella added. "Yet it's so impossible to prove. You'd be sticking your head out ready to get it chopped off if you tried to say there was something. But just consider the odds - two horses, side-by-side, isolated by themselves in that little section of the barn, getting that type of a disease."

The ashes of Knights Templar will be buried in Paris, Ky., at Hidden Creek Farm, owned by Vella and his partners. Lost in the Fog's remains are heading to Florida, to be placed beneath a special tree at the Southern Chase Farm of Greg and Karen Dodd, where the colt went through his early lessons.

And for those who like their stories tied in a neat, melancholy bow, Southern Chase is located in the town of Williston, just a short hop from the town of Orange Lake and Brylynn Farm - the same Brylynn Farm where Knights Templar was foaled.