Ex-seaman hoping to ship Tong Po to winner's circle in Derby

April 12, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

For the last two weeks, Leon Blusiewicz has been living in a hotel in Garden City, Long Island, plotting a dream.

The 59-year-old trainer, known simply as "Blue," is Kentucky Derby bound, by way of New York.

At least, that's the best case scenario.

Blue trains a lightly raced colt named Tong Po, and until a few weeks ago, no one knew much about this horse with the unusual name, which means "golden tree" in Thai.

That's when the dark bay colt, born and raised at Green Willow Farm near Westminster and bred and owned by Bob and Lorraine Quinichett of Silver Spring, took off at the quarter pole leading into Pimlico's long stretch and drew away to an eight-length win in the $175,000 Federico Tesio Stakes.

Dismissed as a 31-1 longshot, Tong Po had been a maiden as recently as March 3. The Tesio was only his third career start.

All of a sudden, Maryland had a horse for the classics.

Blue waited a couple of weeks, carefully devised a training plan, and then made his move. Two weeks ago, on March 31, he shipped Tong Po to Aqueduct, with one race in mind.

Next Saturday, Tong Po is scheduled to start in the $500,000 Wood Memorial, the last East Coast prep for the Derby. It is developing into a first-class race, pitting champion filly Meadow Star against Cahill Road, Kyle's Our Man and a cast of eight to 10 others.

"Everybody thinks they have a shot to beat the filly," Blue said. "But I'm not so sure. She is a lot more horse than people think."

Since that Tesio win, life has been pretty heady stuff for Blue. His wife, Joanne, and son, Alex, keep him posted about what's going on at home in Timonium.

Blue is an East Baltimore boy, the son of Polish immigrants and grew up attending Catholic schools in the city. He played baseball at Mount St. Joe and fell in love with the sea before he fell in love with horses.

He worked on tugs and freighters and then doing a strike in the 1960s decided to move to the racetrack full time -- beginning a storybook career. Blue has trained plenty of good horses -- Skipat, Snow Plow, Willa On The Move, even a potential Derby starter named Lejoli, who had to be scratched in 1982 just a couple days before the race.

But now he thinks he's training the best horse of his life.

The phone keeps ringing. "There's not a day goes by that some top jock's agent doesn't call wanting to ride the horse or there is some inquiry if the colt's for sale," Blusiewicz said.

Blue has settled on Angel Cordero Jr. as the colt's Wood rider, mostly because Cordero will stick with the colt for the whole Triple Crown series.

"I could have had Chris McCarron for the Wood, but then he's committed to Dinard for the Derby," Blue said. "Jose Santos' agent just called. Santos is available for the Wood. But then he's on Fly So Free for the Derby. I've heard from [Laffit] Pincay, [Jorge] Velasquez, Julie Krone, all the top jocks."

Quinichett had offered half of the colt for sale for $660,000 after he broke his maiden at Laurel. The price for the whole horse climbed to $2.2 million after the Tesio.

"Now, the colt is off the market," Blue declared.

Tong Po gets Blue's sole attention in New York.

"That's what Bud Delp told me you have to do with a good horse, and that's why he did such a good job training Spectacular Bid. You've got to divorce yourself from your other horses," Blue said.

A three-man Pimlico entourage accompanied Tong Po to Aqueduct. Billy Gardner is his groom, Bobby Leaf gallops him, and Joe Galloway is the night watchman.

Cordero worked the colt between the third and fourth races at Aqueduct last Saturday, carrying 128 pounds, two more than the Wood weight. He worked a mile in 1 minute 40 seconds and galloped out 10 furlongs in 2:07. The Wood is run at 9 furlongs.

The horse will have his final workout on Monday, breezing five eighths of a mile and galloping out six furlongs.

"The horse couldn't be training better," Blue said. "He hasn't missed an oat, and he's developed into a real kind horse to care for. Everyone is kind of attached to him. Joe [the night watchman] comes on at 4 p.m. and stays in front of his stall all night with him. They watch TV together.

"In fact," he quipped, "their favorite show came on last night. It's 'Cheers.' "

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