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Horse Racing : Cougar II Provided Thrills--and a Lesson

June 22, 1989|Bill Christine

The day after Joe Hernandez sold Cougar II to Mary Jones Bradley, he stopped by the barn of the new owner's trainer, Charlie Whittingham. Hernandez wanted a set of Cougar's shoes for souvenirs and he also wanted to cadge a bucket of carrots.

"Get your own carrots," Whittingham told him. "We just gave you $125,000, what more do you want?"

This was in 1970, three years before the Chilean-bred was retired with $1.1 million in earnings, the first foreign horse to have earned $1 million in purses here.

Along the way, Cougar was voted America's best grass horse in 1972 and near the end of his career, on the third try, he won the Santa Anita Handicap, one of the country's premier dirt races.

At stud, Cougar sired offspring that earned more than $11 million, the most famous being Gato Del Sol, winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1982.

At 23, Cougar's career as a stallion ended suddenly June 11. After having been bred to a mare, he suffered a ruptured stomach and died before surgery started.

On the track, Cougar was an unusual horse in many respects. No pony was needed to bring him to the post, and he would seem to acknowledge the cheers of the fans, bowing toward the crowd and then gazing at the tote board. Once he got rolling, Cougar had a paddling motion not unlike that of a Mississippi River boat.

"He was sort of a ham," Bradley said. "A real crowd pleaser."

Whittingham picked him out, but after Bradley committed herself to buying Cougar, the owner and the trainer debated about who would control the horse.

"Charlie finally said that he would take half of him if he went on to win $250,000," Bradley said. "But I said to Charlie, 'Well, then, that would make him worth more than $125,000, wouldn't it?' so there was no deal."

Whittingham thus earned 10% of Cougar's purses instead of the much higher share due a co-owner. He still enjoys telling the story as an example of how he won't allow an owner to dominate him.

"But it still was a pretty expensive mad, wasn't it?" is the way Whittingham finishes the story.

Cougar raced in the East as well as in California but he never had much luck on the road. Rain made the courses soft, which Cougar disliked. But on the dirt in the 1971 Woodward at Belmont Park, he finished first by five lengths. However, he was moved back to third by the stewards for causing interference in the stretch. Bradley believes that that disqualification prevented Cougar from being voted horse of the year. Ack Ack, another horse trained by Whittingham, won the title.

Hernandez, who announced the races at Santa Anita for 38 years, missed the rousing finish to Cougar's career. He died in February of 1972 at 62.

Sabona will try to become the first 7-year-old since Native Diver to win the Hollywood Gold Cup when the stake is run for the 50th time Sunday.

Native Diver won his first Gold Cup when he was a 6-year-old in 1965, his first of three straight victories in the stake.

Sabona was a winner at 15-1 in the Californian when Ruhlmann, the odds-on favorite, ran fifth, even though slow early fractions appeared to be in Ruhlmann's favor. Ruhlmann is not going to run in the $500,000 Gold Cup, at 1 1/4 miles.

Nasr El Arab is the high weight at 123 pounds. Also expected to run are Blushing John, 122 pounds; Lively One, 116; Payant, 115; Henbane, 112, and Paramount Jet, 109. Sabona will carry 116 pounds.

Dick Floyd (D-Carson), the assemblyman trying to get a revised state medication bill passed, says that trainer Roger Stein has a good chance to win his $25-million lawsuit against the California Horse Racing Board.

Stein was the first of several trainers to run a horse that tested positive for cocaine. He received a suspension, while charges were dropped against the others for lack of evidence.

"It might turn out better for Stein than if he won all the stakes they run for the next five years," Floyd said.

Dan Issel, former basketball star at the University of Kentucky and with the Denver Nuggets, formed a syndicate in 1981 that was going to breed horses to be sold as yearlings. A few years later, however, the horse market bottomed out.

Now, the syndicate is on the verge of going out of business. Shares that were worth about $2 apiece in the beginning were worth only six cents at one point this year.

King Glorious' victory in last Saturday's Ohio Derby was scored against the second-stringers and worse of the 3-year-old division, but at least the colt proved that he could handle two turns while making his first appearance outside California.

King Glorious, who now has a lifetime record of seven wins in eight starts, could be a factor against the stars of the division.

Tommy Trotter, racing secretary at Arlington International Racecourse and Gulfstream Park, said that if he had to handicap Triple Crown adversaries Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, he would put them at 128 pounds apiece.

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