HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Hugo Reynolds has bred horses. He's bought them at auction. He's bought them privately.
But until he claimed a sore-footed 6-year-old last year in California, his fortunes in the horse business resembled a leaky bucket. No matter how high he filled it, he ended up with an empty bucket.
The horse who plugged the hole was River Keen. After winning New York's premier fall races for older horses, the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup, River Keen has emerged as a strong contender in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest of the eight Breeders' Cup races Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
Owner of an erosion-control company in Southern California, Reynolds paid $100,000 for River Keen last December at Hollywood Park. In 10 races since, River Keen has earned more than $1.3 million.
For Reynolds and his wife, Patsy, both 60, River Keen has not only reversed their sinking fortunes, but also lifted their sagging spirits. Illness had nearly sunk them both.
"After what my wife and I have been through the last couple of years, you could say this horse is a miracle horse, and my wife is a miracle lady," Hugo says.
Also, River Keen provides a window into the curious phenomena of claiming races, in which every horse competing is for sale at a predetermined price. This is the appropriate time for a look through that window, because 1999 has become the year of the claimer.
Before winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Charismatic ran twice in claiming races, a sign that his owners thought so little of him they offered him for sale at a close-out price.
And now, River Keen is one of three former claimers -- probably a record for a multimillion-dollar race -- running in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest race in North America.
Claiming races began in England in the 17th century as "selling races," in which owners of the horses were obliged to sell their steeds for a set price after the race. The idea was to ensure that an owner wouldn't enter a vastly superior horse to collect the purse and/or cash a large bet.
The rules of claiming races evolved over the years, but the philosophy behind them remained the same: Guarantee as much as possible an evenly matched field for owners as well as gamblers.
Now, claiming races make up about two-thirds of all races at thoroughbred tracks in this country. The claiming price peaks at $100,000, but far more common are blue-collar claiming races for $10,000.
Reynolds bought River Keen out of a $100,000 claiming race. His hand shook as he signed the claim slip because that was the most he had ever paid for a horse. Until then, his luck had been dismal. In 25 years of racing thoroughbreds, Reynolds had never owned a stakes winner.
"I never had any big horse or anything like that," Reynolds said. "I tried breeding and racing them, but I never could get anything to the races. They had one kind of problem or another."
He tried buying them at auctions and privately from other horsemen and claiming them out of races, usually at the lower levels. His exploits always ended the same -- with a phenomenal lack of success.
Reynolds estimates that in each of the last 10 years he lost about $200,000 in the horse business. He can afford it, he says. Creating slopes alongside California freeways rewards him handsomely.
Asked about his extraordinary patience waiting for that big horse, Reynolds says: "That wasn't patience. That was stupidity."
But then he found River Keen, an Irish-bred who had run his first 18 races in England -- 14 on turf, of which he won one, and four on dirt, of which he won all four. In his American debut in June 1997, River Keen won the Grade II Californian on dirt at Hollywood Park.
By the time Reynolds claimed him in December 1998, it was clear by the long breaks between races that River Keen had a problem. The problem turned out to be persistent cracks in his hoof walls.
But still, Reynolds took the plunge. He knew the horse had talent, because he had won a graded stakes. And he knew he couldn't do any worse than he had done in the past.
Under Reynolds' trainer, the Eclipse Award-winning Bob Baffert, River Keen prospered. Reynolds says that Baffert's staff is the best, from his assistants who manage the shedrow during the trainer's out-of-town excursions, to his blacksmiths who care for the horse's feet.
Right now, owner and trainer say, River Keen's right-rear hoof, the latest crisis, is fine.
But there's more to River Keen's success than that, Reynolds said.
"This horse was sent to me and my wife by the Lord," he said. "We really believe that. The Lord guided us to this horse."
Before claiming River Keen, Reynolds learned he had prostate cancer and underwent surgery. Patsy entered the hospital for back surgery and, while on the table, suffered a heart attack, prompting triple-bypass surgery, and a blood clot, prompting amputation of her right leg.
Other complications led to her lying coma-like in intensive care for 37 days. "From day to day, they didn't know if I would live or die," Patsy said.
As she recovered at home, her spirit lagged. Then River Keen came along.
"We got him at a time when we really needed him," Patsy said. "He's been a blessing to us."
Said Hugo: "It's rejuvenated her. It put a smile back on her face."
It has also rejuvenated Reynolds' faith in the horse business, especially the claiming aspect, which he says is the "easiest thing to do because somebody else has already gone through all the problems to get the horse to the race."
Reynolds even has his eyes peeled for another potential millionaire claimer.
"I think there's another River Keen out there," he said. "I'm going to find him."