02/05/2003 12:00AM

A warhorse from way back


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Vindication, champion 2-year-old last season, is expected to have six starts before the Kentucky Derby. He ran four times last year.

Undefeated Sky Mesa, winner of the Hopeful at Saratoga and a leading prospect for the classics, is also expected to go in the Derby off six starts. He had three starts as a 2-year-old.

Toccet, one of the busiest 2-year-olds, with eight starts, will have run about 10 times if his people can get him ready in time for the Derby.

Carry Back, on the other foot, made 21 starts at 2, four of them at a Hialeah meeting that ended in early March. That left him so fatigued he had only seven races at 3 before the Derby for a total of 28 starts. He won the 1961 Derby and Preakness, had a summer holiday, and returned for six more starts before calling it a season. In his last start at 3 he beat top-class older horses in the Trenton Handicap at Garden State Park.

Carry Back was a remarkable horse. Despite a campaign of 16 races at 3, he came back at 4 to win the Metropolitan Mile with a spritely 1:33.60, defeated the mighty Kelso in the Monmouth Handicap, captured the prestigious Whitney at Saratoga, contested the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, and was a creditable third in the Washington D.C. International at Laurel.

He went to stud at 5, but when things did not go smoothly, owner-trainer-breeder Jack Price recalled him to the racetrack. Carry Back was not a factor in several major fall features but went into retirement a second and final time after beating the classy Mongo in a memorable Trenton Handicap.

"A remarkable horse," former jockey John Sellers reflected the other day. "I had not ridden Carry Back in some time when Jack phoned and asked me to work him one morning, shortly before the Trenton. After I got off him I told Jack he was very sharp, and Carry Back won the Trenton comfortably. I rode him many times, and in my opinion the Trenton was the best race he ever ran."

The Trenton was his 61st start.

"He was a very competitive horse and had a mind of his own," Sellers said. "He showed speed in some of his early races at 2, but then decided he'd rather come from behind. I let him run as he chose. I never fought him, and we got along very well."

Price acquired Joppy, dam of Carry Back, for an unpaid training bill of $300 and bred her to Saggy for a stud fee of $400. CB, as Price called him, earned almost $1,250,000, at a time when that was a lot of money. Price, who once ran a tool-and-die company in Cleveland, had an offer of $500,000 for his colt before the Flamingo but turned it down.

"Jack was a good man," Sellers said. "We won the Flamingo and Florida Derby, and then we finished second in the Wood Memorial." Sellers said that Eddie Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker "and just about every rider in America was on the phone, trying to get the mount. But Jack stayed with me and we won the Derby and Preakness."

Sellers, who rode for more than 20 years, chalked up almost 2,800 winners. Now in bloodstock, he remains close to the game. He deals in the present, but the Carry Back chapter remains ever green.