07/05/2002 12:00AM

A well-deserved life of leisure

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Saturday's running of the Triple Bend Handicap came and went without an appearance from the defending champion. He was missed.

While Kona Gold, Mellow Fellow, and Full Moon Madness prepared to take the stage in Hollywood's best sprint, Ceeband was lounging around his stall at Cooper Ranch in Hemet, leafing through travel brochures and planning his retirement, or perhaps a second career.

Fans will miss Ceeband's big white mug and his dramatics in the stretch. If conditions were right and the pace was fair, they knew Ceeband would be there for a piece.

Ceeband's victory in the 2001 Triple Bend was the ultimate case of the right horse in the right place at the right time. To that point, he had done nothing more than win a couple of allowance races, first for Jay Robbins and then for John Sadler, after being claimed in March of 2001 for $62,500.

In the seven-furlong Triple Bend, Squirtle Squirt and Explicit ran each other ragged through a half-mile in 43 and change. Ceeband and Matt Garcia had no choice but to wait and watch from far behind. First Explicit folded, then Squirtle Squirt began to grow weary. Ceeband caught him at the end at odds of 44-1.

The Triple Bend put Ceeband on the map. As far as Sadler is concerned, though, Ceeband's best effort came one race later at Del Mar on Aug. 12, 2001. That's the day he finished third in the Pat O'Brien Handicap, beaten barely two lengths by El Corredor, winner of the 2000 NYRA Mile.

Swept Overboard, winner of the 2002 Metropolitan Handicap, finished second.

Ceeband ran well four times this year without winning. In three of his losses, he was helpless to catch the swift Snow Ridge over speed-favoring surfaces. In his other try, Ceeband fell just a half-length shy of beating Kalookan Queen in the Potrero Grande at Santa Anita.

Ceeband fractured a sesamoid in a June 11 workout at Hollywood Park, and that was that. He raced 32 times, won seven races, placed in 15 others, and earned $636,265 for his breeder, Cecilia Straub-Rubens, and then for the family of Lee Searing.

"I love him, and we miss him around here," Sadler said. "I supposed he could have a career as a jumper. He's got a wonderful, big long body. The plan right now is to turn him out for four or five months, and then he might get a shot to be my pony.

"He never got real excited, but he could get a little mean at the track," Sadler noted. "But we were cranking on him all the time, and their personalities change when you stop running them."

Ceeband already has fooled Carol Cooper.

"He's a real sweetheart," she said. "They told me he'd bite my thumbs off. But I'll go in there, give him a hug, and tell him he's beautiful."

Cooper is the wife of John Cooper, who trains quarter horses for the Searing family. The Coopers have 10 acres, populated by about 30 horses, including babies, layups, and retirees. Ceeband shares a barn with three yearlings, an orphaned foal and a goat.

"My husband says if we had a thousand acres, I'd have a thousand old geldings out here," Cooper said with a laugh. "People tell me I get way too attached to other people's horses. I guess that's why they call me 'Mama' Cooper."

Ceeband, obviously, is one of the lucky ones. He figures to have a good life beyond the racetrack. But many other horses have been retired with good intentions, after a life of giving pleasure to their keepers, only to end up sold, slaughtered, and processed as food exported for human consumption.

This might be more acceptable if they were raised for food in the first place. But they are not. They only become candidates for slaughter once their other uses have been exhausted.

If polls are to be believed, more than 80 percent of Americans are not comfortable with that fact. The consumption of horse meat has never reached a level of acceptance in the U.S. (as it has in Europe and Asia) unless cannibalism is the only other choice.

The proper way to mercifully end the life of a decrepit, unwanted horse is euthanasia, a one-time expense that can be accomplished by a trained vet and without moral residue.

A few states have banned the sale and transport of horses for the purpose of slaughter, as well as forbidding the export of horse flesh for human consumption. Unfortunately, there is no national prohibition.

Currently, there are two bills in committee in the U.S. House of Representatives addressing the issue. Both have flaws, according to Hoofpac, a political action committee formed by the California Equine Council. Of the two, only H.R. 3781, sponsored by Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland, has a chance to be rescued.

It couldn't hurt to look them up. The Hoofpac web site is at www.hoofpac.com. Racing fans can e-mail their representatives in Congress at www.house.gov. Americans have no right to force their culinary tastes upon other cultures. But they do have the right to tell those cultures to shop somewhere else.