05/28/2008 11:00PM

Volatile to the very end

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Veterinarian Chuck Jenkins, on call early Wednesday morning at Hollywood Park, knew how bad it was when he responded to the emergency call from the Carla Gaines barn and saw Nashoba's Key standing on three legs. Her fourth, the left hind, was twisted and dangling.

"It was still dark when I got there, but I could see that the skin over the inside of the hock was torn open, and the leg was rotated out," Jenkins said. "I could see bones, and I knew when I saw open skin, that she had no chance, that it was black and white. I called Sam Bradley, another vet in our practice, to come and have a look, just because of who she was, and the fact that insurance was probably involved. He was there right away, and he agreed."

Within minutes it was over. As Bradley held Nashoba's Key, Jenkins dug into the back of a long drawer in his mobile veterinary case and grabbed a large syringe and a bottle of Euthasol, a strong barbiturate. Drawing 140 ccs, Jenkins swiftly found the mare's jugular and injected the drug.

"Sometimes it is necessary to tranquilize a horse before they are euthanized, but she was standing calm," Jenkins said. "The barbiturate stops the heart but also shuts off some brain function, so that it's literally like going to sleep. She was on her way down by the time the 140 ccs were in her. Before I did it, though, I told Sam to be careful, because she will get you. And don't you know, she tried to bite him."

So ended the life of a great racehorse, mare of rare ability and contentious personality, cut down in the midst of what promised to be a storybook 5-year-old campaign. Nashoba's Key, snarling and full of beans to the end, killed herself by lashing out at the steel mesh of her outdoor pen and suffering one of the few catastrophic injuries that equine orthopedics can't really handle. She was just a few days into a return to training after a brief but beneficial break, and her coming months were going to be geared toward a return appearance in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, this time over the same Santa Anita course and distance that suited her so well last fall in the Yellow Ribbon Invitational.

Instead, fans of Nashoba's Key will have to settle for the memory of a mare who won 8 of 10 starts, over six different surfaces; a mare who had the demanding air of a natural born pack leader, suspicious and imperious by turns, coddled and accommodated by a doting crew who knew how lucky they were just to work in her shadow.

And now she is gone, swept up in a bitter rapture that left her people stunned and lost. Racehorses are hurt all the time, usually in action. They get sick and they sometimes die. But to injure herself in a pre-dawn spasm of temper and hopelessly fracture a limb - such a fate is almost too senseless to contemplate.

Carla Gaines was with her stable across town at Santa Anita when her Hollywood assistant called her with the awful news. For the past week, Gaines had been in her Alabama hometown at the side of her mother, dealing with the sudden death of her troubled older brother, Martin Gaines, who was 58.

"I came back to California with a broken heart," Gaines said. "Then I saw her the next day. Just the sight of her made my heart sing."

They can do that, these grand, hot-blooded beasts, and anyone who thinks otherwise need only spend a few weeks in the presence of a filly like Nashoba's Key, Eight Belles, or Pine Island to understand how deeply they burrow beneath the skin.

John Shirreffs, who will be running the budding superstar Zenyatta in the Milady at Hollywood on Saturday, is a Gaines stable neighbor at Hollywood who saw Nashoba's Key under a tarp Wednesday morning and took it very much to heart.

"Training horses, in the end, is all about letting go," Shirreffs said. "They're sold, retired, sometimes the worst happens. I learned about it early, with the first group of yearlings I broke. I doted over them for six months like they were my own, then the trailers pulled up in April to take them to the track, and just like that they were gone. As trainers, all we can do is provide them with the best and safest environment we can while they're with us."

Gaines trained Nashoba's Key from the beginning of a career that included several stops and starts as she matured. Together with the mare's owner and breeder, Warren Williamson, Gaines exhibited towering patience, and it paid off. Nashoba's Key, who did not make her racing debut until January of her 4-year-old season, proceeded to win her first seven races, four of them major stakes.

"She was blossoming," Gaines said. "Her rump was muscled up again and powerful, and her coat was shining like a copper penny in the sun.

"I must tell you, I find life so very strange," she added, her voice cracking, emotionally spent. "To lose two such important members of my family in one week. And they really were a lot a like. Both of them were brilliant, volatile, difficult."

And impossible to forget.