04/14/2002 11:00PM

Two old heroes not forgotten


ARCADIA, Calif. - Sometimes it takes a while to unpack from an eventful trip. Days later, the corners of a suitcase (this one recently hauled through Ireland) can still hide scraps of memories and unlikely souvenirs.

An entry pass from The Curragh, Ireland's most famous racecourse, where a giant clock tower commands one end of the grandstand, greeting all participants and fans with the ominous reminder, "Time Reveals All."

A betting slip from Hackett's Bookmakers for 10 euros on a horse named Ad Hoc in the 2002 Grand National at Aintree. He tumbled over a fallen horse at the 27th fence, with just three jumps remaining. Of course, he was making a winning move at the time. Thank goodness, he got up.

A coaster from the Guinness Bar at the Cashel Palace Hotel, where barman Denis Heffernan can regale the patron with tales of everything from local racing legends to the nocturnal habits of visiting celebrities.

The most lasting souvenirs - those collected in the head and the heart - are many times acquired quite by surprise. And so it was, on a bright morning last week at the Ballydoyle training center, where Aidan O'Brien is preparing colts like Johannesburg, High Chaparral, Ballingarry, and Black Sam Bellamy for a variety of classics, that we turned into a small training yard nestled off to one side and were presented with a gift beyond value.

There stood Itstabraq, the national Irish hero, his stall door open, a lazy expression on his unmistakable face, and looking the part of the retired gentleman with a ticket to Barbados. At the age of 10, with three victories in Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle to his name, he was pulled up last March 12 trying to win a fourth. That, coupled with two falls in his previous three appearances, prompted O'Brien to say enough was enough. After a quiet letting down, he would be spending the rest of his days at the farm of owner J.P. McManus.

Goes to show you, always be prepared for a brush with greatness.

Istabraq's record of 23 victories in 29 starts over the jumps puts him in a league with any American racing icon that comes to mind. He was as durable as Kelso, as consistent as Spectacular Bid, and as much an Irish media star as either Cigar or Secretariat was over here. To be granted an audience was an honor indeed.

As it turns out, a similar surprise is in store for unwary visitors to Canmor Farms, located in the lush region just to the east of Vancouver, British Columbia, where the old war horse Budroyale was recently sent into retirement by his owners, Jeff and Naseem Sengara.

We knew this was coming. Budroyale had not raced since September of 2001. He had not won a race since the San Antonio Handicap in February of 2000. As the minor injuries mounted, they became too much to overcome.

In terms of training, Budroyale's spirit seemed to be willing. But the flesh was no longer in stride. It was time.

Budroyale and Istabraq led loosely parallel lives. Both gave their people hopes for a Derby - Kentucky in one case, Epsom for the other. But their destinies were hidden elsewhere, for different owners, to be revealed under different circumstances.

Istabraq, a foal of 1992, won 2 of 11 races as a flat horse for John Gosden and Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum before he was purchased by McManus, gelded, and turned over to O'Brien.

Budroyale, born in 1993, was given a chance in Derby preps like the 1996 San Felipe and Lexington Stakes before that dream died. His only chance was to make a mark the hard way, as an older gelding.

Istabraq was 6 when he won his first of three straight Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham. The date was March 17, 1998. The following day, at Santa Anita Park, the 5-year-old Budroyale ran for the first time for the Sengaras and trainer Ted West. He won the allowance race, then the San Bernardino, then six more stakes and more than $2.5 million before he was through. Along the way he finished second to Cat Thief in the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic and second to General Challenge in the 2000 Santa Anita Handicap.

From March of 1998 through early 2000, Budroyale was basically the Istabraq of western Canada. Never mind that he was bred and did most of his racing in Southern California. His retirement to Canmor, British Columbia's leading farm, was the best thing the Sengaras could have done for the racing fans of the region. Now, they can visit their hero anytime they please.

Jeff Sengara demures. His actions were purely selfish. The thought of Budroyale retiring anywhere but the Sengaras' backyard was hard to swallow.

When the old horse arrived at Canmor, late on the night of April 2 after a two-day van ride from California, the Sengaras roused 5-year-old Kevin and 3-year-old Anita and bundled them into the car, along with a Bud-sized bag of carrots.

"They know he's not your typical horse," Sengara said. "He's an absolute warrior. I'm not sure how he's going to take retirement, and being away from a competitive scene. That's why they've put him in the stallion barn."

A perfect ending.