At 78, it's a pleasure to contemplate Derby First, Heard's horse must pass Florida test

March 14, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. - It's about a dream.

A man races horses more than 50 years, and now at age 78, with an unlikely horse named Built For Pleasure he's on the verge of that first magical visit to the Kentucky Derby.

Thomas Heard Jr. would be the oldest trainer ever to win the world's most famous horse race, held annually the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. But first, Built For Pleasure must continue his improbable quest against a star-studded field in Saturday's Florida Derby.

"If he runs good," Heard said, smiling from ear to ear, "I want to go to the Derby."

His horse is 12-to-1 in the morning line after paying $288.20 to win in the Fountain of Youth Stakes Feb. 24 at this track near Fort Lauderdale. But the Florida Derby, a primary prep for the Kentucky Derby, is loaded with potential stars. Track officials call it the richest field in four decades.

And this race, even in ordinary years, has left an extraordinary mark upon the Triple Crown races. The 44 runnings of the Florida Derby have produced 18 winners of the Kentucky Derby, 16 winners of the Preakness and 12 winners of the Belmont Stakes.

Last year, Thunder Gulch thundered to victory in the Florida Derby and then won the Kentucky Derby, ran third in the Preakness and took the Belmont. In last year's Preakness, Florida Derby graduates finished second, third, fourth and fifth.

This year's class features several horses whose trainers say they are on the verge of greatness, such as Cobra King, Unbridled's Song, Editor's Note and Louis Quatorze.

But they face the same problem Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole faced last month in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination: Separating oneself from the field.

"There are some potentially outstanding horses in this race," said Heard, who owns and trains his horses 20 at the moment. "But at this point, none really stand out. It's a wide-open race as far as I can see."

Although Built For Pleasure presents Heard his best chance at a Kentucky Derby berth, the 3-year-old colt is not the first fast horse in the Heard stable. He has saddled stakes winners in every decade since the 1930s.

But until now, the closest he's come to the Kentucky Derby was with a horse named Colonel O'F back in the '40s. Colonel O'F was the third choice of oddsmakers one winter to win the Derby, but he suffered an injury in the Wood Memorial Stakes in the spring and missed the Triple Crown series.

Heard had no idea that Built For Pleasure a gangly, 2-year-old he bought last year for a modest $40,000 would develop into a Derby contender. He bought the horse because he had trained his grandmother, a minor-stakes winner named I'm For Mama "one of the gamest fillies I ever saw," Heard said.

"I knew if he had his grandmother's heart, we might have something. And then he just started blossoming. I've never seen a horse grow so fast. He's a great-looking horse now."

But eying his record of three wins in nine starts (no stakes victories) before the Fountain of Youth, bettors didn't think he looked so great. The oddsboard read "99-to-1," the highest it goes. Built For Pleasure's actual odds turned out to be 143-to-1.

Did Heard bet? No, he said, because he didn't even notice the odds until the horses were moving into the starting gate. Had he noticed sooner, he added, he would have bet a bit.

His assistant trainer, Robert Dello Russo, apparently was the only Heard worker who wagered. Dello Russo, 43, said yesterday that he bet $50 on Built For Pleasure to win.

His wife, Jill, placed the bet, and then collected the winnings.

"Oh yeah, she was excited," Dello Russo said. "She got $2,880 for every $20. What'd it come to? I guess about $6,000 or $7,000."

He's not quite sure, he said, because she kept the money and paid bills, including the hospital bills from the birth of the couple's 4-month-old daughter, Jillian.

When it was all said and done, Dello Russo, who carried Jillian into the winner's circle, received a piddling $100 from his practical wife for what can only be described as the score of a lifetime.

But Dello Russo didn't seem to mind. "That's horse racing," he said.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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