10/26/2005 11:00PM

Who says nobody's perfect?

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Borrego, shown at Belmont Park on Thursday morning, has been far from perfect - until recently.

ELMONT, N.Y. - There is a daunting appeal to perfection, something to be admired but rarely attained. And while it is no big deal for a 2-year-old to be undefeated at this point in his or her career, it is for a 3-year-old sprinter, a 3-year-old filly, or a 4-year-old who runs on the grass. The Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park on Saturday has one of each.

Shakespeare (5 for 5) has his work cut out for him in the Breeders' Cup Turf, with Europeans Bago, Azamour, and Shirocco breathing fire. If he wins, he automatically moves into Manila territory, where only the very best of the American-grown grass horses live.

Nothing But Fun (4 for 4) is a well-managed innocent plugged into a wide-open Breeders' Cup Distaff. Richard Migliore, the only jockey she's ever known, was convinced she would have something to say about the outcome, even as he languished in a hospital emergency room with a broken leg last week. Alex Solis has picked up the ride.

As for Lost in the Fog (10 for 10), suggestions that this bunch of so-so speedsters and middle distance refugees will give him trouble in the Breeders' Cup Sprint is laughable. One knowledgeable observer (who wanted his name mentioned, but I declined) described Lost in the Fog as a "one-horse relay team" who hands the baton to himself and re-breaks after each quarter mile, fresh as a daisy.

Borrego lives at the other end of the spectrum. Modest and unassuming, he has been far from perfection, until recently. Today, he bears little resemblance to the Borrego of last year, when he went 0 for 8, or even earlier this year, when he was pitched at the best in the West but could only muster a lonely allowance win.

The racing game is harsh on such slow developers. Fully exposed, they end up learning on the job, far from the glitzy classics.

Trainer Bill Mott, for instance, was about to give up on Cigar until he tried the colt on dirt, late in his 4-year-old season. Bang-zoom from there, all the way to a 16-race winning streak and victory in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic.

Lefty Nickerson saw something in the plain brown wrapping of the 4-year-old John Henry that cried out for West Coast turf and the solicitous care of Ron McAnally. Five years later, John Henry retired as a two-time Horse of the Year.

And never forget Vigors, who was no more than a plodding grass horse well into his 4-year-old season with only one significant win to his name. His trainer, Larry Sterling, never lost faith, and when a twist of weather put Vigors on the dirt as a 5-year-old, he was transformed, winning major races with a giddy swoop from far back that ended all debate at the eighth pole.

Sounds kind of like Borrego's last race in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Sam Bradley, a respected Southern California racetrack vet, can hardly believe his eyes when he beholds the new Borrego. Bradley bred Borrego in partnership with trainer Beau Greely and has been the colt's attending vet from the start, even though he no longer shares in the ownership.

"I never really wanted to be an owner," Bradley said this week. Surprisingly, there was no hint of regret in his voice. "The intention was to breed the mare [Sweet as Honey] and sell the foal as a yearling. But Beau kept buying him back."

It's true. Borrego could have been bought at public auction for $20,000 as a yearling or $75,000 as a 2-year-old. Maybe it was his turf-leaning pedigree (he is by the Sadler's Wells stallion El Prado), his blue-collar female family (there is a Canadian champion), or those two goofy bumps on his forehead that led to his exotic name, which loosely translates from Spanish to "the horned one."

So Bradley sold his share, and now Borrego has earned $2 million and has a dead aim on North America's richest prize. Clearly, Bradley will be keeping his day job, but how does he handle the agonizing regret and the deep, painful depression that goes along with such a decision. He laughed. Laughed!

"Sure, I'd love to own a piece of a horse like this," Bradley said. "But I wouldn't do anything different. It's a big commitment to become an owner, and there are no guarantees, certainly not for a horse to turn out like Borrego."

Bradley was at Belmont last Tuesday to give Borrego the once over. The encounter was a revelation.

"Even though I have an emotional tie, I have to look at him objectively, and I couldn't believe how he had changed," Bradley said. "He must have gained 75 pounds. I don't know if he really loves it in New York, or if he has finally matured. But he's a different horse. And he's really developed a killer instinct."

Bradley will not be among the large Borrego contingent at Belmont on Saturday, but he will make a beeline for a TV screen during his afternoon rounds when the Classic is run.

"And you can bet I'll be yelling and screaming for Borrego, just like any neophyte fan," Bradley promised.