Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Somis filly invokes the spirit of Seabiscuit

Lovely article by Rachel McGrath

Odds were against a Somis filly winning, but after three years of racing, she's worth $600,000

Amid the avocado and lemon groves in the hills west of Moorpark, horse ranches and stables are dotted along the canyon roads, hidden from the casual passer-by.
On one of these parcels of land, Carl Grether balances agriculture with his passion for racehorses. After years running his father's 75 acres of citrus and avocado trees, which he now owns, he bought an adjoining 25-acre horse ranch in 2005 and has spent the past three years building up a horse training facility with the aim of racing and breeding thoroughbreds.
Little did he know in 2005 that the filly he was about to buy for $37,000 would be worth $600,000 three years later and that his father's ranch would become No. 20 in the nation in earnings.
Nearby, there used to be a horse farm owned by Lin Howard, the son of Charles Howard, who was the owner of the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit.
Lin Howard followed in his father's footsteps, and in partnership with horse racing fan Bing Crosby established Binglin Stable, as it was known, in the late 1930s.
In 1950, after the death of Charles Howard and the sale of his northern California ranch, his life-size bronze statue of Seabiscuit was brought to his son's ranch.
"The word is that Seabiscuit was buried here," said Camarillo resident Grether, 51, gesturing to the land around him that used to be Binglin Stable.
"That's what all the old farmers say."
That rumor flies in the face of the official story that Seabiscuit was buried under an oak tree at the Howard ranch in Mendocino County.
But whether or not Seabiscuit lies close by under the avocado and lemon trees, maybe his spirit is lingering a little over Carl's ranch, Tom Grether Farms, still named for his father, who owned it before him.
Filly's first race June 30
In September 2005, Grether and his racing trainer, Gary Sherlock, bought a yearling thoroughbred at the annual horse sales at Keeneland, Ky.
They paid $37,000 for the dark bay filly that stands just 15.3 hands. Grether named her Intangaroo.
After breaking her in and preparing her for a career on the racetrack, Grether entered the horse in her first race June 30 at Hollywood Park in an allowance maiden, which is a race for fillies and mares that have never won.
On June 28, just two days before the race, Carl visited with his father, Tom, who had instilled a love of horses in Carl from the moment he took him to his first horse race at the age of 13.
Carl told his dad that he thought Intangaroo, at odds of 14-1, had "a pretty good shot" at being placed in the race, which had a $60,000 purse.
"He gave me four hundred bucks and told me to put it all on to win," Carl said.
The next day, Tom Grether, who was 80 and had Parkinson's disease, had a major stroke and was hospitalized. He was on a ventilator with no chance of recovery.
"All the family got together at my brother's house, and we watched the race there. We were waiting for my sister" who had to return home from Europe. "After that, when my sister arrived, we all went to the hospital to say goodbye, because we had to take him off life support."
Carl sat with his dad through the night until he died at sunrise.
"It was pretty emotional," he said, "but dad's last bet was a winner at 14-1."
Tom Grether was buried with the winning ticket in his pocket.
Suffered a leg injury
Shortly after Intangaroo's first win, jubilation turned to sorrow once again when the horse took a misstep on the track and suffered a leg injury.
She was brought back to Grether's Somis ranch, where over the course of several months, she was nursed back to health by his staff, including his ranch manager and trainer Terri Hickey and her husband, Bill.
The Hickeys managed actor Robert Wagner's horse ranch in Hidden Valley for many years, and Terri Hickey said she knew instinctively that Intangaroo was "a natural athlete."
"It's something that's born into them, and through maintenance and proper training, you enhance that, and you just try to encourage that natural instinct," Terri Hickey said.
By the end of 2007, Intangaroo was sound again, and she returned to racing trainer Gary Sherlock's stables at Hollywood Park.
"Gary was a trainer first and then he got sick and he became an insurance underwriter for the racetrack and horse mortality insurance," said Grether. "We met in Kentucky in 2005, and he told me he was going to go out on his own, so we decided we'd buy a couple of horses and train them out here and see how it worked out."
'An upset victory'
By the start of 2008, Intangaroo was back in form. On Jan. 11, ridden by 24-year-old jockey Alonso Quinonez — who had only recently completed his apprenticeship — she won a race at Santa Anita Park.
As a result, Sherlock and Grether decided to take a huge gamble and enter her in the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap, once again with Quinonez in the saddle, on Feb. 2 at Santa Anita.
Grether acknowledges that he hoped his horse might place third, giving him a small share of the race's $250,000 purse.
Against all odds, however, Intangaroo won the Santa Monica Handicap in what ESPN racing correspondent Steve Andersen describes in his online report as "an upset victory."
At 26-1, Intangaroo was the longest shot in a field of five in the seven furlong Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap. She came from behind in the last quarter of a mile to win by a nose.
"We were sitting in a box right on the wire, and then suddenly I see her coming up the rail, and then when they crossed the wire, I knew she'd won," Grether said. "It's just a very exhilarating feeling.
"In the winner's circle there were a lot of tears. My wife was crying. A whole bunch of people were crying," he said. "I was more in stunned shock."
'She's got a great mind'
Trainer Sherlock said Intangaroo's win seemed almost effortless after her battle with injury.
"She's come out of the race perfectly," he said by phone from his stables at Hollywood Park. "She has a long stride even though she's not very big, and she's got a great mind."
"Nothing rattles her, and she's going to improve even more."
It's highly unusual for a horse to go from a maiden race to a Grade 1 race and win it, Grether said.
As a result of her win, the $37,000 4-year-old filly is now worth at least $600,000, a value that she won't lose even if she never wins again because she's proved her worth as a brood mare.
Owner's ultimate dream
In an interesting twist, Intangaroo was sired by Orientate, who, according to the Web site The Virtual Form Guide, "was rated the World's Best Sprinter in 2002." In the 2002 Breeders' Cup, Orientate beat Crafty C.T., owned by Carl's father, Tom Grether.
"Right now, Tom Grether Farms is No. 20 in the nation in earnings so far this year, and Intangaroo is No. 6 for earnings of all the racehorses in the country," said Grether, who currently has 60 horses at his Somis ranch as well as several others stabled at the Hollywood Park racetrack and at Turf Paradise in Phoenix.
Grether and Sherlock haven't yet decided whether they'll run Intangaroo in Las Flores Handicap at Santa Anita on April 6, but if she does run and she wins, they plan to run her in the Humana Distaff Handicap, a seven furlong race held at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day.
The ultimate dream for Carl Grether, though. is to enter Intangaroo in this October's Breeders' Cup sprint at Santa Anita and for her to cruise to victory, six years to the day after her sire beat his father's horse.
"Carl picked her, and from the moment she came here she's always been special," said Terri Hickey. "She's brought Carl a lot of good luck."
Maybe the spirit of "a little horse that could" is somehow still alive in Somis.

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