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HORSE RACING

Cesare May Tackle the Derby

February 14, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Long before Bill Cesare turned to training horses, he was a free safety for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

A son of parents who rode horses, a classmate of a young man who was a groom for the stakes-winning Proud Birdie, Cesare was also a horse racing fan.

In August 1980, about to begin his third season in the NFL, Cesare turned on a TV set in the training room of the Buccaneers, a few hours before an exhibition game against the Atlanta Falcons. It was Travers day at Saratoga, and Cesare had just watched Jaklin Klugman win an allowance race on the telecast when Phil Krueger, the general manager of the Buccaneers, walked in.

Krueger, Cesare recalls, wasn't thrilled that one of his players was focused on something besides football.

"He fired me the next day," Cesare said, "and I always felt that [the Travers telecast] had something to do with it."

Cesare played three more seasons in the NFL, with the Miami Dolphins and the Detroit Lions, and then bounced around the United States Football League for two years. He might have gone into coaching, but when his good friend, Wayne Fontes, was turned down for the head-coaching job in Tampa Bay, Cesare went to Calder Race Course, near Miami, and launched a stable with six horses.

Nearly 20 years later, after training stints in Florida and Chicago, and even a brief 1990 stay with the late Fred Hooper's horses at Hollywood Park, Cesare is still looking for his first Kentucky Derby starter. He might have one in the aptly named Second Of June, who's the 9-5 morning-line favorite against seven other 3-year-olds in today's $250,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Fountain of Youth is a prep for the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 13 and the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1.

Bill Cesare -- it's pronounced Caesar, as in Julius -- was born in Brooklyn on June 2, 1955. Second Of June was born in Florida on June 2, 2001. When Cesare and his mother, Barbara Cesare, noticed the coincidence in the sales catalog at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s auction in January of last year, they told themselves that this was a colt they just had to have.

It helped that the horse was a son of Louis Quatorze, the 1996 Preakness winner, and a grandson of Spectacular Bid, a bust at stud but winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1979.

It did not help, cosmetically, that the horse's front legs were crooked, but that is probably the reason the Cesares were able to buy him for only $7,500.

"There was only one other bidder," Bill Cesare said. "A guy who had had this horse's half sister."

The colt had already been named Gaudy, but Cesare had the Jockey Club change the name to match the birth date.

Second Of June will be facing decades of negative history if he makes it to Louisville. Since 1939, when these things were first put on paper, no Kentucky Derby winner has been born later than May. The youngest Derby winner since '39 was Northern Dancer in 1964. He was foaled on May 27, 1961.

"Because of our birthdays, I think there's a special bond between me and this horse," Cesare said. "He's a late developer, but he showed a lot of ability early on. I only worked him seven times before I ran him. The first time I worked him -- an eighth of a mile -- I knew he had some run in him."

Second Of June's six-race record -- four wins, one second -- is marred only by a sixth-place finish in his second start. He was slow out of the gate that day and found himself a far-back last early in the race.

His first five starts were at Calder, Cesare's home track. So-called "Calder horses" are frequently suspect when they move to other tracks, but Second Of June was vanned to Gulfstream on Jan. 17 and, at 1 1/16 miles, the same distance as the Fountain of Youth, he won by 2 3/4 lengths.

Cornelio Velasquez, Gulfstream's second-leading jockey, has the mount again today after having won two straight races with Second Of June.

"If we win," Cesare said, "I just might send [Phil Krueger] a picture."

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