Favorite among trainers may have favored horse McAnally, Olympio have many backers 116 PREAKNESS

May 13, 1991|By Marty McGee

Surely you remember John Henry, that source of inspiration t anyone ever accused of being over the hill.

But chances are you're not too familiar with the man who trained "The Old Man" and other racing stars.

Ron McAnally -- reserved, respected and immensely popular -- has been a major character in some of the biggest racing stories of recent times.

And Saturday, McAnally, 58, will be front and center at Pimlico Race Course. He will saddle Olympio, a colt picking up so much support that he may be the favorite by post time for the 116th Preakness.

In that regard, Olympio will be like his trainer -- one of the sport's most well-liked figures.

"I consider Ron to be one of my best friends in this sport," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who like McAnally lives in California and spends much of his time at tracks there. "But then, that's true of just about everybody who knows him. The one word to describe Ron is 'solid.' He's a good horseman, a good person."

Popularity, however, does not gain one entrance to the National Racing Museum Hall of Fame. Saddling winners does, as McAnally has done more than 1,500 times. Winning Eclipse Awards does, as he did as the nation's top trainer in 1981. Finding a horse's niche does, as he did in 1989 when transforming Hawkster from a mediocre dirt horse into a turf monster. Making an ill-bred gelding a champion does.

And last year, McAnally was enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

* The highlight of the 32-year training career of Ronald Lou McAnally came in the early 1980s, when John Henry, that obscurely bred gelding, captured the hearts of sports fans. The two-time Horse of the Year was the all-time leading money earner (more than $6.5 million) until 1988, when Alysheba surpassed him.

Glossy statistics are nice, and John Henry accumulated tons of them. But the great thing about him was the way he rose from obscurity -- a mere $1,100 yearling purchase who went through a number of owners early in his career before Sam Rubin bought him for $25,000 in 1978 -- then defied the laws of aging.

At age 6, in 1981, he was Horse of the Year. At 9, incredibly old for a thoroughbred to be racing, he won the honor again.

Through it all, McAnally stayed in the background, smiling his slit-eyed smile, as amazed as anyone by the whole thing. He was the perfect complement to the horse, never getting in the way of a story that told itself.

The John Henry saga is as good as it gets. Bayakoa is another great tale. One of McAnally's strengths has been his ability to venture into South America, strike a deal for horses he believes can become winners in the United States, then bring them home to become just that.

Bayakoa, purchased from Argentine connections by Frank and Jan Whitham in 1987 for $300,000, is the most successful of McAnally's imports. She won the $1 million Breeders' Cup Distaff twice, earned $2,856,414 and twice was named champion older mare. The Whithams and McAnally decided to retire her in April after taking one shot at the career earnings record for a female runner. She lost badly in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, leading McAnally, typically, to accuse himself of perhaps being a little greedy and not doing what was best for the horse.

McAnally has been a party to other good stories. At a Keeneland sale, he bought a silver-tailed colt named Silver Ending for his wife, Debbie, to own in partnership with friends. Total purchase price: $1,500. The colt won the Arkansas Derby last year, then finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby as fourth choice.

Probably the most poignant and revealing moments of McAnally's career came last fall. The setting was the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park. Bayakoa had just won for the second straight year.

But something much more significant had happened. Bayakoa had won after Go for Wand fell in the stretch, making for one of racing's most tragic scenes. Cameras focused on McAnally in the winner's circle; microphones were thrust in his face. What a terrible irony it was that, in what could have been one of his finest hours, he was asked to define the horror that millions had just witnessed.

McAnally's eyes filled with tears. His understanding of the situation was all too great, and he could barely speak. "What a tragedy," he recalled having said. "These horses give their lives for us, simply for our pleasure."

* Some 6 1/2 months later, McAnally is at Pimlico, preparing Olympio for what appears to be the trainer's best chance at his first victory in a Triple Crown event. McAnally -- like his fellow California great, Charlie Whittingham -- always has placed the Triple Crown races in perspective. He is a combined 0-for-10 in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but he never really made winning them his primary goal. He has been, perhaps, too keen on pointing for important races in California, where he has gained wide acclaim for his patience and knowledge.

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