After a long, productive racing career, Sharp Gary had earned retirement to some bucolic pasture.

He was good enough to run in the Kentucky Derby and the Marlboro Cup. He was durable enough to race more than 100 times. He won major stakes from New York to Nebraska and earned more than $500,000 in purse money.

But instead of that white-fenced pasture, Sharp Gary wound up at Charles Town, running against $2,000 claiming animals. And even after hitting the rock-bottom level of horsedom, he still has years of racing ahead of him -- unless he breaks down first.

Sentimentalists would say that this is an unfair abuse of a game old horse. Pragmatists would say that it is an illustration of the cruel economics of the sport. Sharp Gary's trainer says the 8-year-old gelding couldn't be happier.

Sharp Gary showed his first signs of real ability early in his 3-year-old season, 1974, and encouraged owner E.R. Scharps to try him in the Kentucky Derby. The gelding wasn't that good, but he was good enough to win second-tier stakes races like the Illinois Derby. He traveled widely in search of them. In one three-month stretch Sharp Gary went from New York to Kentucky to New Jersey to Illinois to Ohio to Nebraska to New York to Pennsylvania, and managed to run respectably everywhere.

In 1976, Scharps sold Sharp Gary to Fred Torrice, the proprietor of breezy Hill Farm in Rhode Island, but the gelding's life didn't change much. That summer he went from New England to Nebraska for several races, then stopped in Detroit on the way home and won the $100,000 Michigan Mile and One-Eighth.

This hard compaigning inevitably began to take its toll on Sharp Gary. His trainer, Joe D'Ettore, recalled, "We sent him to Keystone, where he took a bad step out of the gate and wrenched his ankle pretty good. He came back to the farm, and banged himself on the leg, in the sesamoid area. Then he developed an arthritic condition in his bones. He was off for a year, and when he came back he was not quite the horse he had been."

Sharp Gary would not be runnng against the likes of Forego again. Now he was competing in allowance races and low-grade stakes at Suffolk Downs and Rockingham, and not competing terribly well. He won a total of two races in 1977 and 1978, ad went back to the farm.

But he wasn't acting like a horse ready to be put out to pasture.

"After a while," D'Ettore said, "he'd just come prancing out of his stall.

He kept saying he wanted to go back to the track. He was a whole new horse. He still had the same minor ailments in his ankles, but otherwise he was doing super physically."

At the age of 8, though, Sharp Gary no longer was able to run competitively against allowance horses. So when D'Ettore brought his stable to West Virginia this summer, he entered Sharp Gary in a $4,500 claiming race. When he lost that, D'Ettore dropped him to $2,000. It was as if Joe DiMaggio were winding up his career in Class D ball.

"It was good sound business sense," D'Ettore said. "We felt he was ready to win at that level. And by running for $2,000, he got eligible for starter races" -- races open only to horses who have started for a specific low claiming price.

Sharp Gary won that $2,000 claiming race last Auguest, but later contracted a blood disease and was knoced out of action.Now he is back in training again.

"He's kind of an iron horse, D'Ettore said. "He's galloping every day. He's got the same class as a stakes horse: he comes out of that stall whether he's feeling good or not." D'Ettore shipped Sharp Gary this week to New England, where he is looking forward to running him in starter-handicap races at Suffolk Downs this winter.

"The starter races there have incredible purses," the trainer said. "He can still make good money. He ought to be able to go on till he's 11 or 12."