08/12/2001 11:00PM

When he goes, the going is good


DEL MAR, Calif. - Some horses are simply a pleasure to behold. El Corredor is definitely one of them.

He is built like a swimmer - 50-meter freestyle - with long, smooth muscles ready to twitch like mad at a moment's command. His stride is mechanically flawless. There is no wasted motion, not a calorie burned in vain. Every time he runs, the machinery hums and the results seem preordained. Too bad we only get to see him once in a blue moon.

Last Sunday at Del Mar in the Pat O'Brien Handicap, the 4-year-old El Corredor ran for only the eighth time in a career that began at the same track in September of 1999. Emerging from an absence of nearly nine months, he defeated Swept Overboard in 1:20.42 for seven furlongs, causing even his trainer to step back in awe.

"When he's been away from the races like this, sometimes you forget just how good he really is," Bob Baffert said.

El Corredor is a dark, minimally marked bay, which is fine. Who needs a red coat, a blaze, and stockings when the package is already so choice? Cracked feet and illnesses have kept El Corredor from public view for most of his professional life, turning him into a reclusive Garbo or an eccentric Glenn Gould. It is to Baffert's eternal credit that he has been so patient, and that the horse has responded to his care.

Of course, Baffert has plenty of other runners to keep his mischievous mind busy between appearances by El Corredor. In other hands, El Corredor may have presented too much of a temptation. He could have been pushed, and then ruined. Baffert's management is reminiscent of the work done by Jenine Sahadi with the grand old Megan's Interco, whose feet were even worse than El Corredor's.

"He carries about two pounds extra, just in patches," Baffert cracked. He wasn't kidding.

Dating from his fourth-place debut at Del Mar, El Corredor has a record so close to perfect that only the name of Fusaichi Pegasus spoils the view. El Corredor sports six wins and a second now in his last seven starts. Where he runs next is anybody's guess, and that includes his trainer.

"The Breeders' Cup, there's not a race that's just right for him," Baffert said. "He's a miler on the dirt. That's why he was so tough going seven furlongs. He's got a real advantage over any sprinters. But in the Breeders' Cup I'd have to run him on the grass, or shorten him up to six furlongs."

There is something truly strange about that picture. The essence of North American breeding is embodied in the brilliant miler, and many of our greatest horses have proven themselves at the distance. Check out the miles run by Damascus, Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, Precisionist, Swaps, Forego, Tom Fool, and Gallant Man.

The Breeders' Cup Mile, however, proves nothing. "Survivor" has more cultural significance. Contested most often on tight-turning American grass courses, the Mile requires the ability to stop and start, check and swerve, and accelerate at a moment's notice to avoid penalty or hit a disappearing hole. If the Breeders' Cup were a carnival, the Mile would be the bumper cars.

Even the Sprint has its drawbacks. At six furlongs, there is not enough ground to sort through 14 good horses, all of them capable of shading 1:09. The start becomes far too significant. If the best horse wins the Sprint, it is usually a happy accident.

The Breeders' Cup should have offered a seven- or eight-furlong dirt race from the beginning, but it did not, and it is too late now, unless we want a race with a name like the World Thoroughbred Championships Breeders' Cup Main Track Mile. Catchy.

So don't blame Baffert and owner Hal Earnhardt if they look elsewhere with El Corredor, as they did last year when they passed on any Breeders' Cup dreams and won the Cigar Mile instead. Too bad, though. The World Championships deserve a horse like El Corredor, and a horse like El Corredor deserves the proper stage.

Record safe with Solar Launch

Though fast enough, El Corredor's final time in the O'Brien did not even threaten the Del Mar track record of 1:20.00 set 11 years ago by a 3-year-old son of Sassafras named Solar Launch.

On Aug. 10, 1990, in the Real Good Deal Stakes, Solar Launch was running for only the second time for his trainer and co-owner, Bob Marshall, who claimed the colt for $80,000 from the Bobby Frankel stable. He won by 4 1/2 lengths under Kent Desormeaux . . . and never ran again.

"It was a suspensory," Marshall said recently. "I'm convinced he did it near the end of the race when Kent kind of eased up on him. He cooled out fine that night, but the next morning the leg was blown up."

Marshall tried for nearly two years to get Solar Launch back to the races. He came close, reaching three-quarters in training, but the suspensory never convinced Marshall that it would hold.

In the "Where are they now?" department, Solar Launch now does business at a farm near the town of Mustang, just south of Oklahoma City, standing last season at a fee of $600. Quarter Horse mares may be in his future.