08/13/2003 12:00AM

Ugly side of a beautiful sport


DEL MAR, Calif. - Last month, the Chilean racing world was rocked by the deaths of jockeys Francisco Laprida and Javier Nino in separate incidents at two different tracks. Nino's skull was fractured in a four-rider crash at Hipodromo Chile on July 21. He was 36. Laprida caught his foot in an iron, lost his seat, and was dragged to his death at Hipodromo Antofagasta on July 18. He was 35.

That same weekend, 41-year-old Chris Quinn was thrown and then trampled on the far turn of the first race at Fairmount Park when the horse he was riding clipped the heels of another runner. Quinn suffered severe head trauma and is being kept in a drug-induced coma at St. Louis University Hospital.

On Aug. 6, at Ellis Park in Kentucky, Remi Gunn was on a horse who also clipped heels and fell, which in turn brought down a trailing horse ridden by Greta Kuntzweiler. Kuntzweiler escaped with a separated shoulder. Gunn, a 43-year-old single mother of four, may never walk again.

Then, last Friday evening at Kilbeggan Race Course, located in the heart of Ireland, the promising young steeplechase rider Kieran Kelly was thrown five jumps from the finish of the Joe Cooney Memorial Handicap, kicked in the head, and crushed by his fallen horse. After four days on life support, Kelly was pronounced dead on Tuesday night. He was 25.

By Tuesday night, half a world away, San Diego media and fans were still buzzing about Monday's great Del Mar disaster, in which three horses died and two more ran around the track, loose and terrified. The five riders who fell to earth had been bandaged, splinted, or hospitalized with a variety of livable injuries, from the fractured vertebrae of Jose Silva and Anthony Lovato, to the broken foot of Tyler Baze, to the bumps and bruises of David Flores and Mick Ruis.

Bundled together, like a passenger manifest from a commercial airline crash, the sheer weight of names and details has a numbing effect. The Del Mar disaster sent witnesses searching their memories for scenes of similar chaos, as if grim precedent would help make Monday easier to swallow. Unfortunately, there have been plenty.

The California granddaddy of all chain reactions took place on the first turn of the 1963 Santa Anita Derby when one horse clipped heels and fell, taking three others with him. Don Pierce, aboard the trailing Beekeeper, somehow managed to avoid catastrophe.

"There were horses falling like bowling pins in front of me," Pierce said. "I just reared up and snatched out of there, and I almost came off myself. I was clear up on my horse's neck. It took me all the way around the turn just to get back on him."

Pierce was lucky, and he knows it. Such dreadful moments occupy a vivid corner of the memory, even 40 years after the fact.

"You don't have time to think," Pierce said. "You just react. And you don't know what makes you learn to do it, because you just do it. If I would've had to take three or four horses wide with me, that's what I would have done, because when four or five horses fall like that . . . God, anything can happen."

The worst possible thing happened on Monday when Mr. Powerful, a 4-year-old gelding by Clever Trick who was making his 18th start, broke his left foreleg while running in third place leaving the three-eighths pole. His fall dislodged Lovato and triggered the calamity, costing the lives of innocent bystanders Jentzen, a 5-year-old son of Miswaki, and Pacific Pride, a 6-year-old son of Conquistador Cielo.

Four hours later, Lovato was lying in the Scripps Encinitas emergency room, equipped with a morphine drip and still grimy from the dirt of the Del Mar main track.

"I feel like I was used to plow a field," Lovato said. "I've been hurt before - went through a wooden fence rail at River Downs once, splintered wood flying everywhere - but I've never been hurt like this.

"I liked where I was," Lovato went on. "I'd just gone to hit him right-handed. He switched leads to his left, and that's just when it happened. He dropped from under me."

Lovato's recollection of subsequent events is amazingly sharp. He recalls being thrown forward and curling into a protective ball. He could still feel the weight of Mr. Powerful as they tangled on the ground.

"At that point I think I was still okay," Lovato said. "Then Jose's horse hit me, and ran into my horse. I saw Jose go flying - he never had a chance - then I looked around and saw bodies laying everywhere."

In the wake of such unprecedented carnage, racetrack management is obligated to review all of its procedures when it comes to pre-race veterinary examinations, triage for injured horses and riders, and follow-up for anyone requiring hospitalization. In a perfect world, there would be a racetrack representative shepherding each of the injured riders through the entire emergency room process, since it is the racetrack, after all, putting on the show.

But in a perfect world, Mr. Powerful, Jentzen, and Pacific Pride still would be alive and lounging around their stalls, and the afternoon of Aug. 11 would have been just another lazy Monday by the sea. Instead, it will be remembered for Del Mar's worst accident ever . . . until the next one.

"Worst, huh?" Lovato said. "I sure wish I could have made history some other way."