07/01/2005 12:00AM

Two grand old-timers still bring it

Matt Goins/EquiPix
Rochester (above), 9, runs in Sunday's Stars and Stripes - after Chindi, 11, makes his 81st start.

CHICAGO - Looking down from a different era on this age of early retirements, of brilliant 2-year-olds burned out at 3, stands Rochester, who turned 9 in January and hasn't lost a step. Rochester runs Sunday at Arlington as the junior member of an old-timer tag team that forgot to exit the main stage when they were expected to step aside.

"Nine?" said trainer Steve Hobby of Rochester. "He's a youngster, isn't he?"

Well, kind of, when you consider that an hour before Rochester goes in the Stars and Stripes Handicap, Hobby will put a saddle on the 11-year-old Chindi and send him out to the track for his 81st start. No basement-level claimer this: Chindi runs in the $40,000 Better Bee, still stakes-class when most of his generation are turned out munching grass.

After their comparably amazing durability - and million-dollar bankrolls - the similarities diminish. Rochester is a mile-and-a-half grass horse, owned by the tony multi-continent Augustin Stable of George Strawbridge. He has spent time away from the racetrack jumping fences in Pennsylvania just to keep him fit and amused.

"That's good gymnastic exercise," said his trainer, Jonathan Sheppard. "It teaches them to respond to their riders wishes and commands."

It wouldn't work for Chindi. "He's too short-legged to hurdle," said Hobby.

When they send Chindi to the farm for a rest, he walks the fence-line, pacing away the time until he can get back to the races.

"He's the happiest horse on the track," Hobby said. "Every day, when I get on him, he runs up to the track from the barn. After all these miles he's trained, he still loves to go to the track."

Chindi first ran in a maiden-claimer at Oaklawn, and his roots burrow into the American heartland. A sprinter when he began, a sprinter Chindi remains, with a wait-for-the-stretch closing kick that has knocked out 18 wins over eight seasons of racing.

"All the way through, he's hardly ever had any physical setbacks," Hobby said. "He's a little bit back in the knees, but other than that he's really correct. I'd have to say his running style's part of it. Most sprinters, the first quarter's 21 [seconds] and change - he doesn't do that; he doesn't run till the end. A really fast finish is 23 and change, and that's all he ever has to do. And by the time he does kick in, he's already went a half a mile to warm up."

Chindi has gone along steadily since 3, but Rochester, sent to France as a yearling, was limited to one start at 2, 3, and 4 because of soundness problems. It wasn't until 2001, when he was 5 and training with Sheppard in the U.S., that Rochester came around. Had he been put through the grinder as a struggling adolescent, Rochester probably wouldn't have gone anywhere.

"I can't imagine what percentage of quality Thoroughbreds never get a chance to show their potential," Sheppard said. "The fact the horses are pounding around hard dirt tracks running around in circles from the time they're 2, it can't be good. You usually get a warning signal when it's time to back off, but it's much easier to call over a vet and stick a needle in his ankle.

"I think the medical people claim that a horse's skeleton doesn't reach full maturity till 5," Sheppard continued. "Most of them are on the way down by then. I see a little bit of a vacuum with older horses. If you can keep a nice horse going without using them too much, you can make quite a bit of money even if they're not a super horse."

There also is something to the notion of the wise, experienced racehorse that knows how to take care of himself in races.

"There might be a little bit of pain involved, and they're not going to breathe fire out of both nostrils," said Sheppard. "Realistically, I love him, but I think Rochester's that way. He likes to run at horses, but if it's a real knock-down, drag-out, he might stay where he is."

Even so, Rochester's a pet around his barn, just like Chindi. Hobby tries not to get emotionally attached to his horses, but can't help it.

"It's hard not to with him," he said of Chindi. "He's like family by now."