02/14/2005 1:00AM

The two sides of close calls


ARCADIA, Calif. - It's the little things that count. A nod here, a bob there. A last-second lunge in the shadow of the wire. In racing, great moments are defined in the narrowest of terms, and one man's ecstasy can easily translate into agony on the other side of the line.

Just ask Luis Seglin, or Bill Currin.

On Sunday, in the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the main track, Seglin watched with quiet confidence as his 7-year-old Argentine mare Miss Loren waged a pitched battle with fellow South American Good Student all the way to the wire. The verdict was Miss Loren by a nose.

"I knew she had won, and I was pretty calm about it," said Seglin. "But a friend watching with me started to cry. That's when I got emotional."

The best races do that to you, no matter what is at stake. In this case, Seglin was winning his first Grade 1 North American event as a trainer, even though Miss Loren had already established herself among the first rank of Southern California's older fillies and mares.

Seglin's attachment to Miss Loren is based not only on her economic contributions to the well-being of his family. As a fellow Argentinean, Seglin brims with pride over her accomplishments, which also include victory in the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar and the Paseana Stakes earlier at the Santa Anita meet.

"It is funny to think that the genetics are so much better in this country than in Argentina, and still we can compete here so well," Seglin said.

The record bears him out. The Santa Maria alone serves as a microcosm pointing to the broader trend. Since 1989, the race has been won by South Americans Miss Brio, Bayakoa, Paseana, India Divinia, Lovellon, and Star Parade. Seglin, who has a veterinary background, had no definitive answers.

"Who knows? Maybe it is true that Argentina has a better environment to raise horses, better pastures, better climate," he said. "I had a farm for 30 years in Argentina, and I made a lot of mistakes before I made things work better. But when you think that a horse will be only 2 when he starts to run, it's a very brief interval of time. This is not like raising cows or chickens. These are like Formula 1's. You have to be very precise, and you cannot make mistakes, or you will pay."

As for Miss Loren, Seglin can wax poetic for hours.

"This mare is very special, and maybe even kind of strange," he said. "Even in Argentina, she would never win by a lot - a head, a neck. She likes to run with other horses, and she likes to beat them."

That would explain Seglin's calm demeanor as Miss Loren duked it out with Good Student down the lane.

"Believe me, she's a pleasure in every sense to be around her," Seglin said. "So professional. And never forget - it's the good horses that make trainers."

Bill Currin knows how Seglin feels, because he has a good one on the rise named Memorette, who came within three-quarters of a length of upsetting heavily favored Sharp Lisa in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday. At one point, deep in the stretch, Currin watched in glee as Memorette and Kent Desormeaux caught and passed Sharp Lisa, only to see his filly surrender to the favorite's final surge at the end. Two days later, Currin was still recovering from the experience.

"There's always a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking," said Currin, who raised Memorette and trains her for his wife, Betty. "Did we move a little too soon? How can we know for sure? I thought Kent rode a fine race and I'm grateful to him. Maybe the other filly on that particular day was just three-quarters of a length better than mine, and if that's the case, it's a whole lot less than lung cancer."

While Sharp Lisa deserves high marks for battling back to win, Memorette will be one to watch as the distances increase for the 3-year-old filly division.

"I wish the race had been a mile and a sixteenth, heck, a mile and a quarter," Currin said.

Memorette represents a third generation of quality mare in the Currin family. The line goes back to Fondre, a stakes winner from the late 1970's owned in partnership with W.R. Hawn. Her daughter, Forever Fondre, is by the classic turf horse Shahrastani and has produced nothing but winners, including Memorette.

"We're thrilled with her and we love her to death," Currin said. "It's always more fun to be a winner, but she's young and I'm young, so we'll take the second and wait for the first. We certainly wouldn't hesitate to take on the winner again.

"I've been offered a lot of money to part with her," he said. "But I did give her to my wife as a present, and you can't sell a present. Even though this is Valentine's Day, I don't believe she'll give her back."