Breeders' Cup partnership stays on right track and same street

Mr O'Brien's owners also are friends and neighbors

Horse Racing

October 26, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Robin Graham stopped Mr O'Brien as soon as he stepped outside Barn B3 yesterday morning at Lone Star Park. His chestnut coat glistening in the muted Texas sunlight, Mr O'Brien surveyed his new environment with keen interest.

This will be home for the week - the backstretch at Lone Star, the track between Dallas and Fort Worth where many of the world's top thoroughbreds will compete Saturday in the 21st Breeders' Cup. This is the first Breeders' Cup for Lone Star, which opened in 1997, and the first for Graham, a Maryland trainer, and Mr O'Brien's owners, Willie White and Lou Rehak, who live in Clarksville.

White, 50, and Rehak, 59, not only live in Clarksville, but they also reside on the same street. They've not only been friends for nearly three decades, but they also work together as owners of Mid-Atlantic Door Group, a Beltsville business that owns five Overhead Door distributorships. And they not only live on the same street and work together, but they've also owned horses together for 12 years.

White's children call Rehak "Uncle Lou." They're so close that Graham, who trains at Laurel Park but is temporarily stabled at Pimlico, acknowledges that people often forget who is Willie and who is Lou.

"They're just Lou and Willie," she said, "like one name."

Graham and Mr O'Brien traveled Sunday to Texas. Although White and Rehak won't fly here until Friday, they're responsible for this adventure. They had to decide whether to pay $135,000 to supplement Mr O'Brien into the $1.5 million Breeders' Cup Mile.

That was probably the biggest decision White and Rehak have had to make in their dozen years in the horse business. But like every other decision they've made, from buying and selling horses to changing trainers to selecting races for their horses to choosing stallions for their mares, it proceeded smoothly.

"I think we figured out early on what our strengths are, and we know when one of us has a better idea," White said. "It is very rare that we would disagree. I think that's why it's been as good as it's been."

The fee to race Mr O'Brien in the Mile was required because the 5-year-old gelding was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup as a foal. The fees that accompany the nominations of foals and stallions finance the Breeders' Cup program. Horses not nominated as foals and horses by non-nominated stallions can compete in the Breeders' Cup only if their owners pay inflated supplemental fees.

White and Rehak didn't consider the $135,000 to be too extravagant. The entry fee to run in the Mile would have been $45,000 anyway, so they figured they were paying only $90,000 extra. Of course, "only" is a relative term made more palatable by Mr O'Brien's earning $150,000 in his last race, a 1 1/2 -length victory in the Kelso Breeders' Cup Handicap, a Grade II stakes Oct. 9 at Belmont Park over one mile of turf.

"This horse has earned the money to go," White said. "He's earned the right. I think he's competitive with all the turf horses in America that I know of."

White and Rehak bought Mr O'Brien, an Irish-bred, for $60,000 as a 2-year-old. They named him after Seamus O'Brien, one of their most devoted employees at Mid-Atlantic Door Group. They're not sure how "Mr." lost its period. Either they submitted the name without it, although they believe they submitted "Mr. O'Brien," or The Jockey Club, the sports registrar, somehow dropped it.

White and Rehak race as Skeedattle II, although they estimate that 75 percent of the perhaps 100 horses they've owned have carried the banner of Skeedattle Associates, which includes Bob Orndorff. As you might guess, he, too, lives in Clarksville, and he grew up with White. They attended Appleton High School together.

"He married his high school sweetheart, and I married mine," White said. "We've been together ever since."

Mr O'Brien, property of Skeedattle II, is the best horse White and Rehak have owned. He's earned $673,290 and won eight of 21 races. Most important, he's won six of 12 on turf.

If he hadn't encountered traffic problems this summer in three consecutive Grade I stakes - the Manhattan Handicap (finished a fast-closing third), the United Nations Handicap (finished a fast-closing second) and the Arlington Million (finished sixth after nearly falling) - then he would have arrived in Texas as one of the favorites in the Mile.

As it is, he's 12-1 in the Daily Racing Form morning line. Eibar Coa, a jockey based during the summer at Monmouth Park, will ride him. Graham, a lifelong animal lover, is little known outside Maryland but can train a horse as competently as the more famous national trainers.

On their first morning at Lone Star, Graham, who exercises her own horses, rode Mr O'Brien to the track and then slowly around the backstretch, letting him survey his environment, which he did with alert eyes. She invited visitors to feed him peppermints.

Then Graham let Mr O'Brien graze on the thin grass outside his barn. Her cell phone rang. It was White, calling from Maryland. Graham's first words to him were: "The man's eating grass right now."

Breeders' Cup

What: 21st Breeders' Cup

When: Saturday

Where: Lone Star Park, Grand Prairie, Texas

Purses: $14 million for eight Grade I races

First race: $2 million Distaff, 1:20 p.m.

Headliner: $4 million Classic, 5:35 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4, 1-6 p.m.

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