Sir Bear (left), passes Red Bullet to win the Skip Away.

Sir Bear (left), passes Red Bullet to win the Skip Away.

Associated Press / Equi Photo

Gulfstream Park Race Report: A Bear at Any Age

Published in the Jan. 19 issue of The Blood-Horse
There is a fountain of youth in Florida, just as Ponce de Leon originally suspected in the 16th century. But the Spaniard, who poked around the St. Augustine area looking for the elixir, would have been better off looking about 250 miles to the south, in the Calder Race Course barn of trainer Ralph Ziadie.

Had he been searching in the 21st century, de Leon would have found living proof in a 9-year-old gelding, Sir Bear, who outshone rivals half his age while winning Gulfstream's Skip Away Handicap (gr. III) Jan. 12. His 63-year-old trainer was busy chanting arithmetic puzzles. "What's nine times seven?" he asked in repetition, scarcely awaiting the reply before answering, "It's 63, which is my age. And they say that every year in a horse's life is equal to seven human years, so that makes him 63, too."

No matter the equation, there was no doubting the sparkle evident as soon as Sir Bear stepped into the afternoon sunshine-- his coat glowing and his gait alert. Though some formidable rivals circled the walking ring with him, including the statuesque Traditionally and 2000 Preakness (gr. I) winner Red Bullet, all eyes were on Barbara Smollin's homebred, who had not raced since a dull effort over his home grass course in October and had not won since a scintillating score last March in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. I).

"He's just a phenomenal horse," said Ziadie, in whose barn Sir Bear has remained every day without pause since he came to the track as a 2-year-old. "There's no way you could tell he's nine by looking at him. He always trains good and still has those big silver dollars on his coat. It's hard to give him a freshening because he gets mad if you just walk him one day."

Though Ziadie was confident in his runner's conditioning and buoyed by suggestions that some others may have been short in that category--"When I read from (trainer Joe) Orseno that Red Bullet wasn't 100%, I felt pretty good," he said--he had one major concern. With regular rider Eibar Coa having missed a connecting flight that would have brought him back from a riding engagement in Dubai, Edgar Prado was the replacement in the saddle of a horse that Ziadie called "A hard one to ride."

But Prado rode Sir Bear like he was born to. At the start of the Skip Away, Built Up tore out to the lead only to be quickly passed by a rank Traditionally, who took a three-length lead on the backstretch despite Pat Day's efforts to restrain him. Meanwhile, Prado allowed Sir Bear to lope along in last through successively faster quarter-miles.

Just inside the three-eighths pole, Jerry Bailey gave Red Bullet the go ahead, and the even-money favorite moved three-wide to challenge for the lead outside of Traditionally, who was tiring from his efforts, and the one-paced On the Game. Sir Bear inched his way closer heading into the turn, and had reached third as they were turning for home.

"I first have to thank Eibar for not getting back in time today," Prado joked, clearly ready for the banquet circuit. "But this horse is very kind and he broke good so I just let him run his own race for the first part. The Old Man knows what to do and, even better, he knows right where the finish line is."

Prado had the marker in his sights as he ranged outside of Red Bullet inside the final furlong and passed him for a half-length win. Hal's Hope, the one-time speedball who has made the remarkable transformation into a closer, rallied late to finish third, a half-length behind Red Bullet.

Just after track announcer Vic Stauffer--making an extra effort for Smollin, who again displayed her preference of nervously staring at the floor tiles as her gelding races-- called Sir Bear "One of the great horses ever to set foot on this Gulfstream track," pandemonium broke loose.

Ziadie danced down the stairs while Smollin stood in the winner's circle, arms upraised, while the cheers of an adoring throng descended. "The older he gets, the more fun it is," Smollin said through tears. Ziadie, his own eyes moist, was not about to disagree. "Last year I didn't have a great Gulfstream and then he came and won the big race, and this year after I start off without winning for a week (Ziadie was 0 for 14 at Gulfstream in 2002), he lifted me up again. He's unbelievable."

The final time of 1:43.98 for the 1 1/16 miles was comparable to Sir Bear's times when he won this race in 1998 and 1999. Then the race was called the Broward Handicap and then Sir Bear was young, using the race as a prep for the Donn Handicap (gr. I) that follows. Though Ziadie did not rule out this year's running on Feb. 9, there were hints aplenty that Sir Bear might skip the Donn and eye a repeat in the Gulfstream Park Handicap instead. If so, he will diverge from Red Bullet, who Orseno said "Probably got a little tired and should move ahead" in his first start following a six-week layoff, and Traditionally, who are both likely Donn starters.

Hooked Up
You would have expected John Kimmel, whose Hook and Ladder was three-for-three at Gulfstream last year and zero-for-five elsewhere, to be overjoyed upon seeing the "Welcome to Hallandale" signs. But after Chester and Mary Broman's son of Dixieland Band captured the Mr. Prospector Handicap (gr. III) on Jan. 13 for his first win since last March's Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Sprint Championship (gr. II), the trainer was giving credit to his training base some 100 miles to the north.

"Actually he loves it at Payson (Park)," said Kimmel. "It's kind on his feet and when his feet are quiet, he can run with anybody. Last year his campaign was kind of disappointing, but he came out of the Carter Handicap (gr. I) with a quarter crack that hampered him all year."

After drawing post 14 for the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) and running to his gate assignment, Hook and Ladder was sent back to his winter home for an assault on the trio of Gulfstream sprint stakes that carries through to the Feb. 10 Deputy Minister Handicap (gr. III) and the Sprint Championship. With an easy 3 1/4-length win over Kipperscope in the six-furlong Mr. Prospector, achieved with John Velazquez stalking that speedball and taking over in the stretch, Kimmel can focus on the sweep. "As long as they don't go crazy and put a lot of weight on him," he said.

Gulf NOtes

Steve Flint, after winning his first stakes as a trainer in the Jan. 11 Escena Stakes, sent the scribes searching for a dictionary when he called the win by Bertram, Elaine, and Richard Klein's De Bertie "lagniappe." "It wasn't pretty, but we'll take it," said Flint... Though the Escena win had been Jerry Bailey's only stakes score through the meet's first 10 days, he led the jockeys' standings with 12 wins from 37 mounts (32%) and with earnings of nearly $350,000. Pat Day was second in both categories...Those looking for a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) future book longshot may have found their man when Stephentown, under hard restraint from Day, whistled through his initial allowance condition in his third career start on Jan 9. The son of Wild Again is owned by Willmott Stables and comes from the barn of Anthony Reinstedler.  

(Chart, Equibase)