No rabbit's foot, or bunny - no wonder 'Hef' is long shot

May 18, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Let's get right to the question everyone is asking: Is Hugh Hefner (the playboy) coming to Baltimore to see Hugh Hefner (the horse) run in the Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico?

"Not one chance in 10 million," Edward Nahem, owner of the equine 'Hef,' said yesterday.

But didn't the real 'Hef' travel to South Florida with an entourage of Playboy bunnies to watch his namesake run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November at Gulfstream?

"He did," Nahem said. "We flew [from California] on the plane together, as a matter of fact. It was him and his girlfriends and a few other girls that were doing some promotional stuff down there. I think they just wanted to go to South Beach."

So, Hefner, legendary founder of the Playboy empire, isn't that into the horse with his name?

"Here's how interested he is," Nahem said. "Picture this: He's in his house [the Playboy mansion], and there's 100 people watching television, and all of a sudden they hear, 'And down the stretch they come, and here comes Hugh Hefner!' And he's sitting there with 10 chicks around him. That's how interested he is."

It's probably a good thing Hefner, 74, isn't coming. His namesake is the longest shot in the Preakness field at 20-1. The colt is a speedster who blazed a half-mile in 45 3/5 seconds in his last race in California, but he finished 13th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and might be over his head in Triple Crown company.

Nahem, 57, a full-time horse breeder who formerly owned art galleries in Southern California, even admitted he has an ulterior motive for running - increasing recognition for the colt's sire, Bertrando.

"That's the main idea," Nahem said. "I own Bertrando and also the mare [who foaled Hugh Hefner] and several brothers and sisters. These are incentives to take the shot. If it was just [trying to win] the purse, with a horse like (3-5 favorite) Fusaichi Pegasus in the field, I'd probably pass. But it's a speed-favoring track, and we certainly have some gas. There were easier spots [to try], but we're trying to hit the home run."

He's already hit one - talking Hefner into using his name on a horse. Various friends of Hefner's had tried "for 30 years," Nahem said, but Hefner always declined. Nahem, who said he has known Hefner for two decades, just persisted.

"The first time I tried, he said no," said Nahem, a charismatic sort who always wears a hat and often dresses in black. "But then I wrote him a letter embellishing the horse, saying that [the horse] was a champion and his father was a champion and so forth. Sometimes people read something and it puts a smile on their face.

"You always like to find names that are a little out of the ordinary, and this certainly is that."

After Hefner (the playboy) signed a waiver giving Nahem permission to use his name, Hugh Hefner (the horse) won his first race at Del Mar in August and also won an ungraded stakes race for California-breds two months later. The real Hefner invited Nahem to a party at the Playboy mansion after each win.

"I go all the time, I'm on the [party] list," Nahem said. "The first party I went to there, I think [actors] Jimmy Caan and Tony Curtis took me. I'm not a great friend [of Hefner's], but we certainly get a kick out of each other."

On these trips to the mansion, Nahem brought along the horse's trainer, Martin Jones, 28.

"The first party was a lingerie party. You can use your imagination," Jones said yesterday. "The second one was a Halloween party. What can I say? It was a lot of fun. It certainly provides an extra incentive to get the horse to win."

Jones didn't actually meet Hefner at the mansion, not that that was, um, his top priority.

"The only time I've said hello to [Hefner] was in the paddock at the Breeders' Cup," Jones said.

The horse's poor performance that day led to a five-month layoff that ended Nahem's goal of running in the Kentucky Derby. Hugh Hefner has run second in each of his starts since coming back last month, but Jones, whose father and grandfather were successful trainers, clearly has concerns about moving the horse up in class and taking on Triple Crown horses.

"[Nahem] basically made the final decision," Jones said. "He's trying to market the stallion. He's got a lot at stake if the horse jumps up and runs big. It's fine with me. He's a nice horse, and he's run well lately. We're going to give it a shot."

Nahem said earlier this week that his goal was to finish second, conceding the win to Fusaichi Pegasus, the Kentucky Derby winner owned by Japan's Fusao Sekiguchi.

"That's the best horse I've seen win the Derby in a long time," Nahem said.

Not that that was keeping Nahem from inventing dramatic angles to hype the Preakness yesterday.

"How about this - the Playboy bunnies against the geisha girls," he said.

Not bad, except that Hefner and the bunnies aren't coming.

"Well," Nahem said, "they'll be there when we get back."

In fact, there's a party at the mansion next week, Nahem said. A Preakness celebration? No, something more important to Hefner.

"His girlfriend just got on 'Baywatch,'" Nahem said. "Brande, one of the twins."

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