09/21/2003 11:00PM

For this year, the ride is over


ARCADIA, Calif. - Let's play pretend.

Pretend you've got in your care perhaps the top-rated older horse in the country and one of a handful of bona fide candidates for Horse of the Year. He is the early favorite for the richest race in North America, in which he would enjoy a distinct home-court advantage. And even though he would need to be supplemented to the race at the punitive cost of $800,000, his owners are ready and willing to cut the check and roll the dice for a winner's prize of more than $2 million.

So what do you do? You pass.

Ron McAnally's decision to put Candy Ride back in his wrapper for the rest of year will be mystifying to even the most well-tuned racing fan. The trainer insists that Candy Ride is neither hurt nor sick, nor does he have the blues, the willies, the heebie-jeebies or any of the other undiagnosible miasmas that a trainer must learn to recognize in a racehorse.

Candy Ride did not look at McAnally funny one day. He did not leave an uneaten oat, or get up on the wrong side of his bedding. His blood is perfect, his eyes are bright, his bowels chug along like clockwork. And his palate - Kenny Mayne will be glad to hear - has not become suddenly displaced.

No, McAnally is skipping this year's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, scheduled for Oct. 25 at Santa Anita Park, for the oldest of the old-school reasons: It just doesn't seem like the right thing to do. At least, that is McAnally's story. And he's sticking to it.

At the age of 71, with nearly 50 years of experience, a Hall of Fame plaque, and five individual champions to his name, McAnally is the last guy who should have to explain a decision to anyone other than his patrons, in this case Sid and Jenny Craig.

But McAnally knows there is an element of showbiz to his game, and he feels the obligation to communicate. Unfortunately, trainer's intuition is a difficult concept to explain without getting a lot of rolling eyes. As a result, McAnally was faced with the daunting task of justifying his decision to throw cold water on the Breeders' Cup party, while searching for the words that would give voice to his nagging doubts.

Candy Ride's amazing performance in the Pacific Classic - in which he dusted Medaglia d'Oro at level weights in track-record time - still hums through McAnally's nerves. He knows that a price must eventually be paid for such an extreme effort, even though it may not be readily apparent.

"If we were to go to the well one more time, it might not be too good for him," McAnally said. "He was only a 3-year-old [based on his Argentine foal date] when he won the race at Del Mar. And even though he's had only six starts, he's been in training without a break for almost three years. I'd like to have a good horse next year, and I think he's a genuine horse."

Beyond McAnally's subtle reading of Candy Ride's condition, there was the matter of risking an $800,000 hunk of someone else's money. There are trainers who can do such things without a second glance, and McAnally envies their serenity of conscience. But he was burned once before, in the very first Breeders' Cup of 1984, when Sam Rubin put up $133,000 to pre-enter John Henry, then lost it all when Ol' John went lame before the dance.

"The Craigs told me not to worry about the money," McAnally said. "They don't, but I do. That $800,000 is almost as much as they paid for the horse. It's a bad gamble. If I'm faced with the same thing next year, I might make the same decision."

Sid Craig, for one, hopes not. Craig had the Breeders' Cup pre-entry check of $267,000 all but written when McAnally made his decision.

"I wasn't thrilled," Craig said. "But if I overruled Ron and the horse got hurt, or didn't come around next year the way we think he will, I'd never forgive myself. In other sports, if you have a defeat, you just lose the game. In racing, there is a life to consider. You could lose a whole lot more.

"And my god, what a rapport this guy has with animals. When Ron said he wanted to give Candy Ride some time, I think the horse told him. Told him he was tired, and that a little time off would be nice.

"I don't know how you tell a Hall of Fame trainer, who spotted the horse in January and said he'd win the Pacific Classic, that I'm going to run this horse no matter what. So I'm hoping that next year he can do all the things he did this year and more, and end up in the Breeders' Cup."

Craig's upper lip was stiff as a board. His disappointment was palpable.

"Just like I ran the Pacific Classic in my head a hundred times before it happened," he said, "I'd already run the Breeders' Cup Classic."


"He did great!" Craig replied. "Candy Ride won by about eight lengths and broke the track record. I guess that will have to hold me for the next couple of months."