Brilliant `Rainbow'

February 12, 2005|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Smarty Jones and Rainbow Blue share such similar stories that it's startling their major difference - their celebrity - is so great. Compared to Smarty Jones, one of the most popular thoroughbreds in years, Rainbow Blue is a relative unknown.

Yet tomorrow, the Maryland-born filly could be named the standardbred Horse of the Year. Ranked No. 1 in the national poll of harness racehorses, she's the leading contender for that paramount honor.

Rainbow Blue would be the second straight standardbred Horse of the Year born at Winbak Farm, the 2,300-acre behemoth in Cecil County that is Maryland's largest horse farm for breed, standardbred or thoroughbred.

Last year, Rainbow Blue, then 3, won 20 of 21 races. She catapulted her little-known but long-laboring trainer and part-owner, George Teague Jr., into prominence. Smarty Jones, also 3 last year, did the same for her veteran trainer, John Servis.

In addition, Teague, based at Harrington Raceway in Delaware, and Servis, based at Philadelphia Park, received the "good guy" awards from the media and publicists in their respective sports. Smarty Jones and Rainbow Blue received numerous awards and accolades, and both starred in dramatic duels for Horse of the Year in which Triple Crowns played a pivotal role.

After nearly sweeping the Triple Crown for thoroughbreds (winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, but losing the Belmont), Smarty Jones was retired to stud. Some voters for Horse of the Year held early retirement against him, and he lost that significant election to the lightly raced but undefeated Ghostzapper.

Rainbow Blue's main competition for Horse of the Year is Windsong's Legacy, who, unlike Smarty Jones, captured the Triple Crown of trotting. But then, like Smarty Jones, Windsong's Legacy retired with important races still to run. Voters for Horse of the Year might have penalized Windsong's Legacy for that and cast their ballots for Rainbow Blue.

The outcome of that vote will be announced tomorrow at harness racing's annual awards dinner at Caesars Atlantic City. The Rainbow Blue team will be there in force.

"She's one of a kind," said Ron Pierce, her driver, who lives in New Jersey. "It doesn't matter what post she draws or who she's in against. You don't have to worry; you're going to lick them. She's head and shoulders above her competition."

Teague, 41, bought Rainbow Blue for $10,500 in 2002 when she was a yearling. She has won 26 of 28 races in two seasons and earned $1.3 million. She competes mostly at harness racing's premier track, the Meadowlands in New Jersey, although she has raced three times at Rosecroft Raceway in Prince George's County.

Training in his blood

Teague's parents were both standardbred trainers, and he began training on his own before turning 20. He has developed horses at Harrington Raceway for more than two decades with moderate success. He bought a horse for $2,700 that earned $570,413, and one for $11,500 that earned $775,984. But those were the exceptions - and the highlights, until Rainbow Blue.

"This is my life for me; it's the only thing I've ever done," Teague said. "And she's my horse of a lifetime."

Rainbow Blue shares even more history with Smarty Jones. Both horses suffered injuries that their trainers feared would prevent them from racing. Smarty Jones reared in the starting gate when he was 2 and smashed his head against an iron bar. Frightened by a tractor as a yearling, Rainbow Blue jumped a wire fence and ripped open her right knee. It became infected but eventually healed.

"I thought she'd never race," Teague said.

The injury occurred two months after Teague bought Rainbow Blue at an auction in New Jersey. She'd come from Winbak Farm in Chesapeake City, where she was born and raised along with hundreds of other foals each year.

JoAnn and Joe Thomson started Winbak in 1991 on land that had been the famed Windfields Farm, home of Northern Dancer, a great thoroughbred racehorse and one of world's greatest sires. The Thomsons kept "Win" and added "bak" from the first initials of their children's names: Bradley, Ashley and Kimmie.

As harness racing stagnated in Maryland, the Thomsons opened divisions in Delaware, New York and Ontario, Canada, where slot machines subsidize racing purses and breeding incentives. They moved their best stallions out of Maryland, but kept their mares, foals and yearlings at their rolling nursery in Chesapeake City. About 1,200 to 1,300 horses reside there.

"I've always said that Maryland's a wonderful place to raise horses," Joe Thomson said. "But the perception of Maryland is terrible. My stallions in Maryland don't get any attention, and people who buy yearlings don't pay anything for them in Maryland because the racing isn't any good. It's very frustrating."

Record of success

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