12/30/2002 12:00AM

When bad horses turn good


ALBANY, Calif. - When Jim Hilling began to train Irish-bred Mister Fire Eyes in 1997, he said he felt like D. Wayne Lukas, but it wasn't because of the horse's ability.

Lukas frequently has two handlers escort horses to the track. Hilling also used two handlers with Mister Fire Eyes - not because he wanted to, but because he had to.

Mister Fire Eyes was so difficult to handle that Hilling sometimes had to saddle him on the fly as he walked around the paddock.

Because of his disposition, Mister Fire Eyes was the least likely pony prospect Hilling and his wife, Kit, had ever seen.

"As he got older, he got crankier," said Hilling.

But Mister Fire Eyes, a 10-year-old multiple stakes winner, has become Kit Hilling's pony, accompanying horses to and from the track in the morning and enjoying life around the barn.

Mister Fire Eyes loves attention, but, even more, he loves Kit Hilling. The feeling is mutual.

Kit Hilling has been around horses since her childhood. "He's a horse I have a soft spot for," she said. "I'll be willing to give him the love and attention he's craved all his life. I've never bonded with a horse like him before."

Hilling liked the horse right from the start. She fell for his "big, bright eyes," which, she thinks, may be the reason for his name.

Behind those eyes, there is a sharp mind.

"He's the smartest horse I've ever been around," Jim Hilling said.

Owner Henry Pabst learned first-hand what a quick learner Mister Fire Eyes is.

"We were at Del Mar, and Mister Fire Eyes was watching a groom wash bandages," Kit Hilling said. "His attention span is amazing. He can watch something for hours.

"He was watching the groom with the plunger, and later Jim took him out of his stall and asked Mr. Pabst to hold him. Mr. Pabst said he'd never held a horse before, but Jim said it would be just a moment.

"Mister Fire Eyes dragged Mr. Pabst over to the washing bin, picked up the handle in his mouth and started moving his head up and down. There were suds and water all over Mr. Pabst's suit."

Pabst, recognizing the bond between Kit Hilling and Mister Fire Eyes, said she could have him for a pony once he retired.

Kit, who actively tries to place retired racehorses with new owners, was thrilled by the offer. But she didn't think Mister Fire Eyes would ever be a pony.

Mister Fire Eyes, apparently, thought differently.

"My idea for his retirement is not what he had in mind," Kit said.

Mister Fire Eyes's final race was an eighth-place finish in the Joseph Grace Handicap at Santa Rosa on Aug. 5, 2000. He retired with 56 starts, 9 wins, 8 seconds, 4 thirds, and earnings of $267,659.

Farm living was not the life for Mister Fire Eyes, and he perked up as soon as he got back to the Hillings' barn at Golden Gate Fields.

"He's a big-city, racetrack guy," Kit said. "He loves stimulation. He was bored at the farm. When he got off the van, he lit up he was so happy to be back."