Once in ruins, Kushners' hopes soar toward Derby Star-crossed owners get lucky with 'Gucci'

April 13, 1996|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- All that was left by the time Arlene and Herb Kushner arrived was a heart-wrenching heap of smoldering rubble.

The January 1995 fire destroyed the Germantown barn of Maryland horse trainer Nancy Heil and killed six thoroughbreds -- the successful veteran Fighting Notion and five promising offspring by the Kushners' stallion, Aaron's Concorde.

"To really appreciate the highs, you have to experience the lows," said Herb Kushner. "And that fire was the heartbreaking low for us."

Now, after 11 years of racing and breeding racehorses, the Kushners finally are experiencing the highs. Their Romano Gucci, a 3-year-old gelding by Aaron's Concorde, is the morning-line second choice behind prohibitive favorite Unbridled's Song in today's $500,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

Herb Kushner, 61, is a retired dentist from Rockville who these days feels about 25. He owns Romano Gucci and his wife owns Aaron's Concorde, who stands at Laurie and Jerry Calhoun's Summer Wind Farm in Libertytown in Frederick County.

The Kushners' story, with Aaron's Concorde as the central character, veers from the tragic to the sublime -- not unlike the emotionally erratic stories of most racehorse owners. Fortunately for the Kushners, their story sticks now on the sublime.

Last November, in the first race of his life, Romano Gucci, at 14-1 odds, won a sprint at Aqueduct by three lengths. It was the first win by an Aaron's Concorde baby that Kushner had retained.

He had lost an Aaron's Concorde yearling after it ran into a fence and broke a leg. He lost another when it came down with a nerve disorder. And then in the fire he lost three of his own; the other two by the Kushner stallion, although owned by others, also were dear to him.

But then came Romano Gucci. Instead of leaving him in Maryland under the tutelage of Heil, who trains eight Kushner horses, he sent Romano Gucci to Aqueduct to be trained by a former Marylander, Dick Dutrow.

After Gucci's first win last fall, the bay gelding won his second in February, an allowance race, this time as the 6-5 favorite. And then on March 2, again a long shot at 15-1, he won the Grade III Best Turn Stakes, giving Kushner his first graded-stakes victory.

All three of Gucci's wins at Aqueduct were at six furlongs. His sire was exclusively a sprinter, winning six of 40 races, so it was a mystery whether Romano Gucci could run farther.

But on March 30, in a major Kentucky Derby prep for 3-year-olds, he won Aqueduct's 1-mile Gotham Stakes, breaking timidly, rushing to the lead and then persevering for a half-length triumph. As the 4-1 second choice, he upset the previously unbeaten California invader, Tiger Talk.

"That was easily the highlight of our racing career," Kushner says. "We have to keep pinching ourselves to make sure we're not dreaming, because in our hearts we know there's just one race between us and the Kentucky Derby."

And that is the Wood Memorial. Only six horses are entered; the top Kentucky Derby contenders decided to duck Unbridled's Song after his overpowering victory March 16 in the Florida Derby.

But Kushner and Dutrow weren't deterred. They say Romano Gucci doesn't have to win the Wood to merit a trip to Louisville for the May 4 Derby, but he must run well.

"I would think that Herbie and I both will know when he crosses the wire where he's going next -- the Derby, the Withers [at New York's Belmont Park], maybe the Preakness," said Dutrow, who trained horses in Maryland from 1966 through the mid-1980s.

"I've never been to the Derby, but I'd love to go -- with a contender, not a 50-1 shot."

Julie Krone, who rode Gucci in the Gotham, will ride him again today. The 1 1/8 -mile Wood will be his first race around two turns.

"Before the Gotham, we were concerned he could do the mile," Kushner said. "But according to Julie, she feels he can go the extra furlong."

Kushner -- "in my infinite wisdom," he said with a grimace -- had the horse gelded before he really should have, thinking it would turn him into a more focused racer.

The gelding won $120,000 in the Gotham, Kushner's biggest payday. The winner of the Wood will pick up $300,000, the runner-up $100,000.

"I've had some nice years, but in my 11 years I've never had a winning year," Kushner says. "This should be my first winning year. . . .

"They say 95 percent of owners lose. Very few can do this for a living. For the vast majority of us, it's what I call a hopeful interest."

Pub Date: 4/13/96

Wood Memorial

Entries for today's 1 1/8 -mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct (5: 05 p.m., Channel 2), with morning-line odds:

PP .. Horse .............. Odds

1 ....Romano Gucci ....... 5-1

2 ... Unbridled's Song ... 2-5

3. .. Secreto de Estado ..30-1

4. .. Harrowman ..........15-1

5. .. Feather Box ... ... .6-1

6. .. In Contention .... . 6-1

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