Derby winner faced the longest of odds


May 10, 1992|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Staff Writer

NEW FREEDOM, Pa. -- The big mare delivered her baby in a dim, unmarked stall in the foaling barn at Pin Oak Lane Farm, in the silence of the rolling hills and tall poplar groves of southern York County. It was just past a chilly midnight in late March 1989. From the beginning, the dark bay foal had it rough.

A blood test revealed he had almost no immunities, the result of not receiving enough colostrum, or baby milk, at the end of the pregnancy. "It was as if he had AIDS," said Dr. William Solomon, the veterinarian who owns Pin Oak Lane Farm.

Two transfusions of immunity-rich plasma corrected the problem. The baby would live. But only the most foolish pipe dreamer would have suggested that, of the 48,022 foals born in North America in 1989, this sickly horse would be the one to win the Kentucky Derby.

It was not just his poor health. Racing legends do not begin this way. Derby winners are born with famous bloodlines on glorious Kentucky farms. They are not born without immunities just a few miles north of Hunt Valley Mall, on a farm known more for producing trotting horses, to a mother who, said the owner, was "a total dog" on the track.

But such is the fitting beginning of the story of Lil E. Tee, perhaps the longest shot ever to win the Kentucky Derby -- maybe not on the tote board, but in life.

He did win the Derby last Saturday at Churchill Downs, and he will lead the field of the 117th Preakness Saturday at Pimlico Race Course. You can look it up. But you might not believe it.

It is not just that Lil E. Tee was born in a state that had never produced a Derby winner. Or that his mother all but barked. Or that his owner just wanted a mediocre horse to run at little Philadelphia Park.

It is that the colt almost died not long after his first birthday and was so thin and ragged at 18 months that he was turned down by the operators of a horse sale, and virtually given away to a blacksmith.

He has lived an orphan's life -- seven barns, five states, five owners, three trainers -- and spent his first year in the shadow of Interstate 295 near Trenton, N.J., not exactly the cradle of champions.

He fell so deep into the sport's cavernous underbelly that making it back to the top was about as likely as finding a million dollars in a shed row one morning.

But since it has happened, racing truly has a champion for the $2 bettor. Lil E. Tee is owned now by Arkansas multimillionaire Cal Partee, but his roots are not in the small coterie of big-shouldered owners and trainers who control racing. He comes from the great mass of ordinariness that composes the other 95 percent, in which average people race average horses for a lot more love than money.

A matter of luck

There would be no story without Larry I. Littman, a 61-year-old Philadelphian who made a killing selling devices that gauged the temperature of molten steel. He bred Lil E. Tee.

"But don't make me out to sound like a genius," he said last week. "What happened was I got totally lucky."

It is a maddening and mysterious art, breeding horses, guessing how blood will run. There are as many theories as horsemen, and, as Lil E. Tee proves, no guarantee that the child of a champion will beat the child of a Mr. Ed. Or in this case, a Mrs. Ed.

Littman had a mare named Eileen's Moment, a big, handsome filly who couldn't run. "She went in slow motion," Littman said. "It was a thrill the time she finished next to last. You know how they say some great horses don't want anyone running in front of them? She didn't want anyone running behind her."

After she ran last in five of six starts, earning a whopping $570, Littman pulled her off the track and began breeding her. He had bought her more to breed anyway. Her grandfather was What a && Pleasure, the sire of 1975 Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.

Eileen's Moment came up barren on her first try, then produced a foal that sold for $45,000. Encouraged, Littman bred her to At the Threshold, an obscure stallion who ran third in the 1984 Derby and was a grandson of Buckpasser.

From studying lineage books, Littman saw promise in mixing the Buckpasser and What a Pleasure bloodlines. But not too much promise. He boarded Eileen's Moment during her pregnancy at Billy Boniface's Bonita Farm in Harford County, then sent her to ++ deliver at Pin Oak Lane Farm because he wanted a Pennsylvania-bred for races restricted to Pennsylvania horses. Not exactly great expectations. We're talking minor leagues.

"I just wanted a nice little horse for the Pennsylvania program," Littman said.

An unlikely birthplace

Only 29 of the previous 117 Derby winners were bred outside Kentucky, none at a less likely spot than Pin Oak Lane Farm, a postcard-pretty, 400-acre farm and medical center that produces horses a year, but only 25 thoroughbreds.

"With the quality being born at this farm in 1989, the chances of a Derby winner being born here were next to impossible," Solomon said.

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