06/01/2005 11:00PM

Was Hollywood Story's bad trip really so bad?

Benoit & Associates
Hollywood Story looks sharp after overcoming trouble and winning the Hawthorne.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It was the morning after Hollywood Story nearly went down on the clubhouse turn at Hollywood Park, and trainer John Shirreffs was not sure what to expect when he took the filly out of her stall.

Racing as the odds-on favorite May 7 in the Grade 3 Hawthorne Handicap, Hollywood Story clipped heels going into the first turn, went to her nose, quickly regained stride, and went about her business to rally from behind and win clear by 2 1/2 lengths.

The incident was dramatic, and as he inspected Hollywood Story the next day, Shirreffs wondered, as he said, "if she was going to be able to walk." He was prepared for the filly to show signs of stiffness or a pulled muscle. Thankfully, there was nothing - Hollywood Story emerged unscathed.

When she starts Saturday as the 121-pound highweight in the Grade 2 Milady Handicap, handicappers will revisit the trouble and wonder about its effect on Hollywood Story's performance. After all, when a horse overcomes potential disaster and wins anyway, conventional belief is the horse would have won more impressively with better luck.

It is not that simple. Trouble does not always compromise performance. And in the case of Hollywood Story, an unprejudiced review of the Hawthorne leads to an obvious conclusion - the first-turn incident did not adversely affect Hollywood Story.

This is not meant to malign the filly. Hollywood Story's rapid recovery from the heel-clipping incident is testament to her agility and competitive spirit. Other, lesser horses might have surrendered then and there. It requires unusual talent for a horse to pick herself up, and go right on with it.

The hard part is quantifying the incident, and on this point handicappers are easily confused. Trouble is not necessarily negative. Dramatic, yes. Harmful, no. A bettor who believes a horse will always run significantly better with a clean trip is making a leap of faith. Often, they do. But there is much to consider before reaching the conclusion.

When a horse encounters traffic or trouble, there is a long list of questions a handicapper may address. It includes the following.

* Did the incident negatively affect the horse's running style? It did not affect Hollywood Story, a deep closer whose style is to race near the rear of the field early. If she had been a front-runner forced to take up or lose position, the incident would have been significant. But she was back where she was going to be anyway.

* Did the incident cause a significant loss of momentum? Hollywood Story righted herself within two or three strides. Her quick recovery meant momentum was not lost. Traffic trouble early in a race is less meaningful than late in a race. When energy reserves are low late in a race, trouble is exacerbated. Momentum is more difficult to regain when a horse is tired. Of course, a slow start from the gate can be one of the worst kinds of trouble.

* Did the incident cause a horse to expend significant energy? Hollywood Story was agile enough to get back on her feet quickly and settle back to where she would have been anyway. But when a front-runner encounters early trouble, he often rushes forward and expends energy to establish a typical position. For a speed horse, early trouble often does not manifest until late, when he hits the proverbial brick wall.

* What did the horse do after the incident? If the horse won anyway, the trouble might have been more apparent than genuine. However, when a horse has trouble, rallies into contention, then loses his punch, it is possible the trouble contributed to the defeat.

* Did the incident force the horse to cover additional ground? Hollywood Story went wide on the first turn, but she and jockey Victor Espinoza typically race wide anyway. On the main track, closers often need to lose ground to stay clear of tiring front-runners.

* Did other horses also have eventful trips? Horseplayers sometimes are guilty of alleging a tough trip cost a horse victory. The assertion can be valid only after thorough review. There is no doubt that Hollywood Story was best in the Hawthorne, but third-place finisher House of Fortune also had a tough trip. She broke slowly, raced wide, and cracked only in deep stretch.

Horses that are blocked until late, or horses that win under a hold, are not necessarily capable of running faster times when turned loose earlier. Some horses are comfortable and confident while running into the bit. But give them their head, and they sometimes lose focus and sputter.

* Was the trouble self-caused? If so, there is the real possibility it will happen again. That includes slow starts or being blocked in traffic. It is not always the jockey's fault. Horses that lack a burst of speed often are unable to get out of tough situations.

Hollywood Story deserves accolades for overcoming clipping heels in the Hawthorne Handicap. On Saturday in the Milady, she may come right back and win again.

But it is a mistake to assume she would have won the Hawthorne by a significantly higher margin than 2 1/2 lengths, or earned a significantly higher Beyer Speed Figure than 95, if she had not clipped heels last out.

When the agile and competitive Hollywood Story recovered quickly to win the Hawthorne Handicap, her trouble did not compromise her performance.