07/07/2002 11:00PM

Two-second lapse has a lesson

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The first running of the American Oaks last Saturday was a barn-burner, a stampede, a head-banging mosh pit of energetic young fillies hard at work. The 14 runners, convening from far and wide, deserved double rations that night for the show they put on that day.

It's just too bad the people got in the way.

Three stewards, two jockeys, and the cold eye of the video patrol camera reminded us in no uncertain terms that this dangerous game comes down to inescapable rules of behavior. There was no doubt that Dublino transgressed on her way to beating Megahertz by a half a length. Her margin could have been a city block. Dublino still needed to come down.

If she does not, then there is only chaos. Michael Klein, principal owner of Dublino, is no stranger to the concept. His father, the late Gene Klein, owned the San Diego Chargers - in addition to hundreds of Thoroughbreds - and suffered through more than his share of controversial calls.

"Both good and bad," Klein said in the wake of the Oaks. "My father knew that was part of the game."

Trainer Laura de Seroux brought Dublino up to the Oaks off just one race this year, and that was 2 1/2 months ago in France. The accomplishment was worthy of her mentor, Charlie Whittingham, who lost the 1971 Woodward Stakes on the disqualification of Cougar and the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap on the disqualification of Perrault.

"He took it like a man, forgot about it, and moved forward," de Seroux said.

Kent Desormeaux was standing near de Seroux when the decision came down. With the exception of a few key strides, he had ridden Dublino to perfection. All he could say was, "I'm sorry," several times.

To that point, it had not been the best afternoon of his life. Desormeaux admitted to making two vital mistakes. One of them nearly broke his leg, the other badly bruised his professional pride. Guess which pain will last the longest.

In the day's fourth race, at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, Desormeaux scratched out a tough, troubled victory aboard the 4-year-old colt Dance Dreamer. Pulling up on the clubhouse turn, Dance Dreamer suddenly switched leads and left Desormeaux dangling. He went down holding the reins.

"That wasn't the worst part," Desormeaux said at the end of the following day. "The most embarrassing part was that I thought we were going slow enough for me to keep a hold of him. I hit the ground, took about three steps and went right underneath him. Look at my shin."

Desormeaux displayed a lower leg that was raked with bloody scabs.

In the rugged game of horseback rochambeau, hoof beats human skin every time.

"I should have just let him go," Desormeaux said. "I know better. I've been run over enough to figure that out."

When Desormeaux hit the ground he lost his wind. He got to his knees, stripped off his Juddmonte silks and clawed open his protective vest, gasping for air.

Then, before Desormeaux could catch his breath, Dance Dreamer turned around and was heading full steam toward his rider. Desormeaux caught sight just in time and tried waving the colt down, but to no avail. Eventually, horse and jockey were reunited for a sheepish picture in the winner's circle.

Then came the Oaks, and Dublino's move at the head of the stretch when she burst between horses and angled into Megahertz and her rider, Alex Solis. Afterwards, Desormeaux and the Dublino team had to wait eight miserable minutes before the decision was announced. The first American Oaks was in the books, but with an asterisk beside the winner.

"I lost my focus for two seconds, and it ruined my whole day," Desormeaux said.

It happens to the best. Perhaps the best even more often, since they are in a constant position to win the big ones, while operating under the greatest degree of pressure. Last summer Chris McCarron was disqualified after winning the Hollywood Gold Cup. Likewise Laffit Pincay in the 2000 Hollywood Derby.

"When she hit that hole, she exploded," Desormeaux said of Dublino. "It was an Astra kind of move. My mare took off so fast, I couldn't imagine there was anyone around me. That's where I failed. Because in horse racing, you can never assume. I could have dropped Alex. Who knows? I didn't know he was there, and that's part of my job. I was just aiming to the wire, saying, "Bye boys!'

"I blew it," Desormeaux added. "There's nothing more to it than that."

Surely, though, he will shake it off and move on. After all, the man has won more than 4,200 races and two Kentucky Derbies. His answer was enlightening.

"I have a poster at home with Michael Jordan's picture on it,"

Desormeaux began. "It says, "I've been entrusted with the last shot 300 times. I've missed 9,000 shots. I've missed the last free throw in the game 800 times. I have failed, and it is because of that failure that I succeed.' "

Desormeaux paused and pulled a sock gingerly over his butchered shin.

"What happened will bother me for the rest of my life," he said.

"But you learn from these things. You learn."