05/02/2005 11:00PM

You never forget the first one

Trainer Bob Holthus sends out Greater Good in Saturday's Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Standing on a thick rubber mat outside his Derby barn, Afleet Alex was getting his legs rinsed clean as cameras clicked and whirred around him. His trainer, Tim Ritchey, stood nearby, wearing the smile of a guy watching his son, the soccer star, attracting well-deserved attention

"How about that," Ritchey said as Afleet Alex mugged. "The poor horse can't even get any privacy when he takes a bath."

Trainers can be forgiven if they allow themselves such rare moments of unalloyed pride and joy in the presence of their first special racehorse. At age 53, Ritchey has had his share of stakes winners, including two-time Maryland Million Classic winner Docent, to go along with his powerhouse record at Delaware Park. When it comes to Afleet Alex, however, nothing that has come before can compare, and Ritchey is clearly smitten.

That's the way it should be. Even jaded Hall of Famers can reach back into their personal pasts to recall the impact of their first transcendent animal, the one who gave them a peek beneath the big tent. Charlie Whittingham had his Porterhouse. Ron McAnally measures time by Donut King. For Bill Mott, it was Heatherten.

"You don't really think you're treating them differently," Mott said. "But you do tend to get more protective."

Mott was 30 when he guided Heatherten through the meat of her remarkable career, which included victories in the Ruffian, the Apple Blossom, the Ladies, and two runnings of the Hempstead. In 1984, Heatherten went 10 for 13.

"With horses of that quality, you come to realize your job is to keep them safe and healthy and just get them over there," Mott said. "They'll take care of the rest."

Bobby Frankel, in town for the Derby with Louisiana Derby winner High Limit, at first said he couldn't remember his first true star. Ah well, there have been so many.

"I do remember being nervous a lot when I had them," Frankel said. Then something clicked, and he grinned the two-word answer: "Linda's Chief."

Frankel was 31, fresh from the East and flying high in his new California scene when Neil Hellman sent him New York stakes winner Linda's Chief for a winter campaign. To that point, Frankel had made his mark moving up claimers, sometimes even into stakes. But he had never been entrusted with a horse like Linda's Chief, a real fire-breather.

"He wasn't the kind of horse you could settle down," Frankel said. "He wanted to run fresh, and he wanted to run scared. Some horses run good scared, and boy he was one of them."

Linda's Chief won seven stakes for Frankel in 1973, including the Withers, the San Felipe, and the California Derby. The toughest, at least for the trainer, turned out to be the one-mile San Jacinto Stakes at Santa Anita, the colt's first try beyond a sprint.

"That day the owner came out and told me that if he didn't win, he was taking the horse back to New York," Frankel recalled. "How's that for pressure?" Linda's Chief romped.

At 71, with 52 years of training and more than 100 stakes winners to his credit, Bob Holthus can be forgiven if the name of his first quality horse does not come immediately to mind. Anyway, he's got more important things to deal with this week, like getting his fretful, four-time stakes winner Greater Good chilled out enough to cope with the wild and crazy atmosphere he will face Saturday in the Derby.

After beating Rockport Harbor in the Rebel Stakes, Greater Good suffered a meltdown when saddled on the grassy mesa in front of the jam-packed Oaklawn stands for the Arkansas Derby. His distant fifth that day to Afleet Alex was too bad to be true.

Greater Good continued his schooling sessions in the Churchill Downs paddock Tuesday afternoon, where he dripped sweat and quivered but still managed to look the part of a talented 3-year-old whose best race could figure in the Derby mix. More paddock visits were to follow.

Holthus, in the meantime, had the name of his first good horse on the tip of his tongue. It was a son of Olympia named Air Pilot, bred and originally raced by Dan and Ada Rice.

"I bought him in a paddock sale the fall of '61 for $17,000," said Holthus, who was 27 at the time. "He was already a made horse, but he was a 7-year-old gelding, and the reason I think I got him for that price was that he had a broken bar in his foot. Luckily, I had a pretty good blacksmith who made a shoe he could be comfortable in, and he went back to being a stakes winner."

Air Pilot went on to win the 1962 Massachusetts Handicap for Holthus and his primary patron, H.J. Wise.

"At one time, we had six or seven stakes winners in the barn," Holthus said. "For a guy at my age, at that stage of my career, it was a pretty good feeling to walk down that shedrow."

In terms of longevity, Holthus has all the 2005 Derby trainers beat except one, the 83-year-old Warren Stute. This provides a built-in supply of perspective.

"Funny thing, though," Holthus added. "Back when I was young, you had to be old to have a lot of horses. Then when I got old, you had to be young."

Fortunately, to win the Derby, it still takes just the one.