Had Barberstown won last Sunday's Carleton F. Burke Handicap, Santa Anita might have needed a sergeant-at-arms in the winner's circle. There was a potential free-for-all developing among the 5-year-old horse's owners, but Barberstown kept the disagreeing principals apart by finishing fourth in the race.
According to Ray Bell of the Bell Bloodstock Co. in Burbank, his family firm would have been owed $600,000 by the majority owners of Barberstown had the horse won. Bell said that Bell Bloodstock is entitled to $600,000 if Barberstown wins any Grade I race before the end of his career.
Stakes are graded annually by a national committee that evaluates races based on their quality in recent years, purse value and tradition. The $100,000 Burke was elevated from Grade II to Grade I this year.
Based on what Bell said, Barberstown's controlling owners were in a strange position. They stood to net more money by not winning the Burke than by finishing first.
Barberstown, a sore-legged horse who won three straight races and then finished third, behind Caveat and Slew o' Gold, in the fourth start of his life in the 1983 Belmont Stakes, was sold two months later by the Bells--Ray and his sons John and Tom--for $850,000 at a Del Mar dispersal auction.
The buyers were announced as Texans Joe McDermott and John Adger, but eventually they were joined in the ownership by John Connally, the former governor of Texas; Ken Schnitzer, another Texan, and Fred Schneider, a partner in the New Orleans Saints. Ray Bell said that Bell Bloodstock still owns 20% of Barberstown.
In the Burke, then, the Texans collected $7,500 for fourth place, minus the 20% for the Bells. Winning would have brought a $78,500 purse, but if the Bells had gotten their $600,000, the Texans would have wound up with a loss of $521,500 for the day.
"When the Texas guys found out, at the last minute, that the Burke had been made a Grade I, they didn't even want the horse running," Ray Bell said. "When we heard that they might scratch him, we insisted that they let him run.
"But then they acted like they might not pay us the $600,000 if he won."
Bell watched the Burke from the company box near the finish line. Some of the Texans, including Adger, were in the Santa Anita Turf Club. "They're easy to find up there," Bell said. "They're the guys with the six-shooters."
Contacted at his Houston office this week, Adger seemed surprised that Bell had gone public with the Barberstown arrangement.
"If Ray Bell wants to be crazy enough to talk about his business, that's fine," Adger said. "But I have no comment about our deal with the Bells. I'll talk about the horse, but not the deal."
Apparently caught in the middle of this is John Gosden, who was named trainer of Barberstown by the Texas group when the horse returned to training this year. Tom Bell's son, whose name also is Ray, trained Barberstown before Gosden.
Under Gosden, Barberstown won an allowance race at Del Mar and the Del Mar Invitational Handicap--a Grade II--before his start in the Burke. Other than the Burke, Barberstown's only Grade I race since the Bells sold him was the Century Handicap at Hollywood Park in 1984, when he finished 11th.
Adger said that although Barberstown runs with an anti-bleeding medication, he bled in the Burke. "We might not have beaten Tsunami Slew (the winner), anyway but John Gosden felt that at least we had a chance to get second," Adger said.
Barberstown's future is up to Gosden, according to Adger. "We might have sent him to New York for the Breeders' Cup (Nov. 2) if he had won the Burke, but he didn't, and now the bleeding is a problem and there's no medication allowed in New York."
The seven Breeders' Cup races, worth between $1 million to $3 million each, are Grade I stakes. Adger said that a likely spot for Barberstown is the Goodwood Handicap at Santa Anita Oct. 27.
The Goodwood is a Grade III race. And there's no chance that it will be made a Grade I by post time.
Trainer Bobby Frankel could hardly have been happier with a win when Fighting Fit finished a head behind Mt. Livermore in last Saturday's Fall Highweight Handicap at Belmont Park.
"This is a horse who hadn't been out since last March," Frankel said. "I told the owner (Los Angeles record executive Jerry Moss) that this was just a race to get him ready for the Breeders' Cup, and then he comes that close to almost winning it."
Fighting Fit, a 6-year-old, ran third in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint Stakes at Hollywood Park. Frankel sent him to New York early this year, but after two stakes wins, he developed sore feet.
Fighting Fit ran with four protective bar shoes in the Fall Highweight, a gimmicky stake in which he carried 139 pounds, just one fewer than Mt. Livermore, whose win was his fourth in major sprint stakes this year.