`Gators' heads for finish in Dash

$300,000 sprint will close career


It's a warm, windy morning at Laurel Park. A good day for a gallop. And when Gators N Bears steps from his stall in the large, white barn on the backstretch, he seems to be almost strutting.

As he heads toward the track, his muscles move with the precision of a perfectly tuned athlete. And when he stops and turns his chiseled face toward people watching him, it is as if he is posing for one of those beautiful old drawings of great horses that hang on the walls at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and every other track at which equine history is made.

It is then that exercise rider Lucy MacKinnon leans forward and gives him a peppermint.

"He loves peppermints," MacKinnon said. "He eats so many of them, we all wonder why his backside hasn't turned red and white."

Today, Gators N Bears will run in the Grade I, $300,000 Frank De Francis Dash, one of just five Grade I sprints at six furlongs. It will be his last race before moving to the Maryland Stallion Station in Glyndon to begin his new career as a sire.

But before he takes up residence in his private two-acre paddock, he has a race to run against some pretty stiff competition and from an unfavorable post.

Gators N Bears will face 14 top sprinters from up and down the East Coast. The early-line favorite is Tiger Heart, trained by Richard Dutrow Jr. Tiger Heart is 7-2 and comes in off a runner-up finish in the Grade I Vosburgh at Belmont Park on Oct. 1.

Gators N Bears, an early 8-1 choice, will start from the 13th post, a spot owner/trainer Leo Nechamkin doesn't favor.

"This horse is set for one of the best races of his career, so this is a shame," said Nechamkin. "But it's better than the 1 post and not as bad as the 14. In his last three trips, he's had to go around the outside, so he knows the way. ... With this many horses in the race, you have to position yourself early and then make your run from the quarter pole."

The race will mark the end of an amazing career that has brought great joy to five Baltimore men -- Mathew Coury, Ed Kohls, Nechamkin, Jim Peterson and Tom Sutton. They partnered as CKNPS to buy the horse when his original owner and breeder, Bobby Camac, and wife Maryann were killed by Camac's stepson in Oldhams Township, N.J., in 2001.

The murders made headlines again two years ago when Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Smarty Jones was owned by Roy and Pat Chapman, and Camac had been their trainer. Ill and stricken with grief by the murders, Roy Chapman decided to sell all but two of his horses; one of the two he kept was Smarty Jones.

But while that story was unfolding before a national audience, Nechamkin, a Baltimore owner and trainer, became aware of another horse, an unbroken 2-year-old sired by Stormy Atlantic out of I'll Be Along by Notebook. That horse was Gators N Bears, one of many owned and bred by Camac. After his death, his daughter had no interest in the horses, and they were put up for sale.

Nechamkin bought the horse from Camac's estate for $8,500.

"I was feeling really good that day," said Nechamkin, as he watched Gators N Bears go through his morning work. "I bought him for the partnership, and he's been terrific."

Nechamkin, who said he became a certified public accountant and earned a master's degree so he could get jobs that would allow him to be in horse racing, is the chief financial officer for a Baltimore architectural firm. He gets up at 3:30 a.m. daily to come to the track and train his horses between 5 and 8 a.m. before showering in the backstretch dorm, putting on his coat and tie and heading for the city.

Under his hand, Gators N Bears, who is 5 years old, has earned $804,000, won or placed in 19 stakes and produced 10 wins in 31 lifetime starts.

The ownership group has sold majority interest in Gators N Bears to Maryland Stallion Station for seven figures, but retained 20 percent ownership.

Asked about the appeal of Gators N Bears, Don Litz, president of the stallion station, said the horse's No. 1 attribute is his speed.

"His speed is incredible," Litz said. "And his precocious-ness. He came on early and lasted and lasted.`

Few horses, he said, are able to do that.

"His stud fee will be $5,000 because we've already had so much response," Litz said. "And at that, he's an incredible value. His conformation is perfect -- the balance of his body. His legs are very correct, very straight. He has a wonderful angle to his shoulders and hips. He's a very balanced individual."

Those around him say Gators N Bears is well aware of his assets and takes the adulation in stride.

"Gators is an amazing horse," said Sutton, one of the five owners. "He makes you believe horses aren't just animals. He's the alpha male, a leader and a very neat horse. He's a horse the other horses in the barn look up to. And he's a classic-looking horse, a horse people come to look at. He's a horse without a fault."

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