Horse, a wealth of love

A $1

Racing: A castoff who Nancy Alberts, 56, bought in 1991 has produced offspring that just might help the trainer turn a lifelong passion into a dream come true: the Kentucky Derby.

January 21, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Nancy Alberts, her weathered 56-year-old face looking dazed, nearly floated into the winner's circle, as if this were a dream.

Her magic gelding, Magic Weisner, had won the $100,000 Maryland Juvenile Championship Stakes on the last day of the year at Laurel Park. For Alberts, a trainer, no, a nurturer, of thoroughbreds for three decades, this was her crowning achievement.

She had dedicated her life to horses. She regarded them as her children, hanging stockings at Christmas for each horse alongside the stocking for her son. Four years ago, she nearly died when a horse kicked her across a stall. But Alberts' devotion never wavered, even after returning to the barn with a pained and weakened body.

Magic Weisner, a horse who would not exist if not for Alberts' childlike zeal, had rewarded her by not only capturing her richest prize, but also completing her most successful year. One hundred trainers in North America won 65 or more races in 2001. Alberts won seven.

"It's like a fairy tale," she said.

Three horses combined for the seven victories. Alberts bred each horse, meaning she arranged the mating of her mares with the sire. She raised the babies. She paid all the bills. She rode the young horses in the morning. She cleaned out their stalls, groomed them, walked them, loved them.

And now Magic Weisner - let us whisper this for now - has Alberts dreaming of the Kentucky Derby. She's trying to figure out when and where to run her fast-closing gelding to maximize his chances of reaching this country's most celebrated race.

"Don't report all that," Alberts said, suddenly embarrassed. "It's just a dream."

But she quickly relented, mustering up the confidence to add: "It looks like this might be my one chance to have a good horse. I might be dreaming, but I'm ready to go to Kentucky. Why not? It'd be fun."

Alberts sampled the big-time once, back in 1976 and 1977 with Cormorant. She worked as a groom for respected trainer James P. Simpson, and Cormorant was her charge. The spirited Cormorant won eight of 12 races, including five stakes. In the 1977 Preakness, Cormorant was the one horse given a chance of upsetting Seattle Slew. Cormorant outran Slew early, but then faded to fourth.

Simpson, 82, retired and living in Virginia, still keeps in touch with Alberts. He is as thrilled by her success as if he were training the horse, he said.

"She deserves everything she gets, as long as it's good," Simpson said. "She is one tough, old gal who works her tail off. She doesn't know what `take it easy' means."

During her 30 years with Simpson, Alberts occasionally was the beneficiary of his castoffs. That was the case in 1991 with Jazema, a crooked-legged filly who, teamed with Alberts, achieved unimaginable success as a racehorse and a broodmare - and as the mother of Magic Weisner.

Alberts bought Jazema for $1. The filly had undergone surgery on both front legs shortly after birth. Her knees were deformed, but as a daughter of Bold Forbes, winner of the 1976 Kentucky Derby and Belmont, she was valuable. While recovering from surgery on Simpson's farm with the other foals, however, Jazema was merely pathetic.

"She'd stand there and watch the others run and just holler," Alberts said. "I felt so sorry for her. I wondered why they just didn't put her down.

"But you should have seen her. She had that same old squished-up face she has now. She was so pretty. You had to like her."

Once healed sufficiently to run, Jazema couldn't keep up with the other foals in the field. Once broken and transferred to the Laurel racetrack, she couldn't run as fast in the mornings as Simpson's other 2-year-olds preparing for glory in the afternoon. Simpson turned her over to Alberts.

"She just laid down and slept and waited for a month," Alberts said. "Then she started to come around a little bit. I said, `Let me just try to train her. Maybe I can win something cheap with her.' "

Alberts galloped her in the mornings. The more she asked of the filly, the more the filly gave. Despite an unorthodox, even frightening way of running, Jazema began outrunning horses.

"Her legs went like this, like eggbeaters," Alberts said, whipping her hands in a frenzied, circular motion. "If you saw the head-on [view of the race], you'd think her legs were going to snap off."

Jazema stretched her desire and pedigree into a five-year career of 68 races. She won 14. Twice, Alberts lost her in claiming races (in which horses are for sale for a set price). Each time, she bought her back. The second time, she bought her back to breed.

Usually, the planning that goes into thoroughbred mating is more intricate than setting up a debutante's wedding. For Jazema, her breeding fate was sealed the afternoon Alberts watched her filly flirt with the male racehorse, Ameri Valay, in an adjacent stall.

"They just eyed each other," Alberts said, laughing. "It was the funniest thing. If you could have seen those two look at each other ... they just fell in love."

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