Published in the March 10 issue of The Blood-Horse
It had been a trying couple of months for Barbara and Al Smollin and their trainer, Ralph Ziadie. Pointing toward the Feb. 3 Donn Handicap (gr. I) since last summer, Ziadie was forced to scratch Sir Bear when he refused his feed and began acting uncomfortable after workouts leading up to the race. That behavior was a first in the 8-year-old gelding's career that has now encompassed 57 races and 18 wins, including 10 in stakes. Ziadie monitored his condition daily, and refused to speculate on what his next move would be. He even entered Sir Bear in the Feb. 28 $67,575 Cryptoclearance Handicap, ultimately won by Madeleine Paulson and Jenny Craig's Rock and Roll. "I truly don't know," was all the usually gregarious 62-year-old would say when asked when Sir Bear would be ready. Fortunately for Ziadie, the answer came at the right time. On the morning of March 3, the gelding galloped around Calder's main track and came back to the barn breathing fire. "I saw it in his eyes," Ziadie said, after Sir Bear steamrolled eight opponents in the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. I). "I knew he was a 100% right and would run one hell of a race." What Ziadie couldn't know was how well the race would set up for Sir Bear's closing kick. Though there may have been doubts about his ability to navigate 10 furlongs, they were eased somewhat when Pleasant Breeze, Duckhorn, and Gander engaged in a furious battle for the lead, smoking through the first six furlongs in 1:10.87 "I was a little concerned about the distance," said jockey Eibar Coa. "But I knew I would have a shot when I saw the pace. So I let him go easy and didn't bother him until the three-eighths pole." At that point, first Gander and then Duckhorn had yielded to the early pressure, leaving Pleasant Breeze alone on the lead. Coa felt his mount responding to his commands as he slid up the rail, passing horses in quick succession. Coa swung Sir Bear out at the head of the stretch, flying by stalkers Vision and Verse and Broken Vow, neither of whom was doing enough, and took dead aim on Pleasant Breeze inside the sixteenth pole. It was at that point when Barbara Smollin finally looked up. The owner, who, with her husband "Doc" had bred Sir Bear and "raised him like a child," never watches him in action, preferring instead to nervously stare at the ground. But the shouts from Ziadie's wife, Sonja -- "Barbara, we're going to win!" she repeated -- caused her to glance at the television monitor, and she saw her old man drive by the game 6-year-old Pleasant Breeze for a half-length win. Though noting his two prior grade I wins in the 1998 Cigar Mile and 1999 Met Mile Handicap, Smollin felt this might be Sir Bear's greatest moment. "To win in front of the home folks is so special," she said as many in the crowd of 16,229 offered her congratulations. While seconding the sentiment -- "They got to see him at his absolute best," the trainer said -- Ziadie reverted to his pre-race mode when asked to discuss Sir Bear's future. "I can't really say," he shrugged. "We're still taking it day by day." Klein TimeIn his 40 years, trainer Steve Flint has never known his father Bernie to cry. Likewise, the younger Flint -- who oversees a string of about 25 horses at Gulfstream that run in his father's name -- had never before shed tears during a race. But all of that changed the afternoon of March 4 after the exploits of a pair of Richard, Elaine, and Bert Klein-owned fillies, De Bertie and Swept Away. First De Bertie awed the crowd with a stunning middle move that took her and jockey Jorge Chavez from lagging in last, 15 lengths behind the leaders, into prime contention at the quarter pole of the Rampart Handicap (gr. II). "One of the other jockeys told me he was amazed; for every two strides he was taking, De Bertie was taking three," said Bert Klein. At the midway point on the turn, De Bertie had caught pacesetter Scratch Pad. At the eighth pole she had passed the favored Apple of Kent. By the time she hit the wire, timed in 1:50.48 for the nine furlongs, the 4-year-old daughter of De Niro had established herself among the top older distaffers in the country. "This filly has really matured," said the younger Flint of a runner that was twice beaten in Churchill claiming races last summer. Now, however, she has captured both of Gulfstream's major tests in her division, including her win in January's Sabin Handicap (gr. III). "She's twice the filly she was and she's just getting better." That's a scary thought, considering his opinion that she will "fare even better when she gets away from this speed-favoring track and gets to New York and Kentucky." Bert Klein was planning even further ahead. "We had planned to run her once or twice this winter and then turn her into a broodmare," he said. "Now I hope she races until she's nine." Two months ago he had similar aspirations for the 6-year-old Hurricane Bertie, a mare he called "our first big horse." But the earner of more than $940,000 was euthanized in January from complications related to laminitis. Gulfstream named a six-furlong stakes race, run immediately following the Rampart, in her honor. Though he had planned on giving her a rest, Flint decided to run the Kleins' Swept Away in the Hurricane Bertie Stakes. It turned out to be a good decision. The 4-year-old stalked the pace and drew away, carrying Edgar Prado to a 3 1/4-length win over Sahara Gold to capture her seventh career stakes in 15 starts. "If it weren't for Hurricane Bertie, we wouldn't have been here," said Flint. "This one has nothing to do with money or status -- it was for Bert." For their part, Bert and Elaine Klein were emotionally drained after an amazing half-hour. "With the memory of Hurricane Bertie so fresh, it's bittersweet," Elaine Klein said. Her husband, holding his filly's bridle, continued to repeat the same phrase. "We won the Hurricane Bertie," he said, with shock as much as joy.