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One Last Claim to Fame

Rich In Dallas, a 'movie star' who played Seabiscuit, retires to the good life after running at Los Alamitos

March 22, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Few in the Saturday-night crowd of 1,685 at Los Alamitos realized they were in the company of a movie star. But there he was: second race, No. 5 in the program and No. 1 in the hearts of horse lovers from Vermont to California.

This was Rich In Dallas, a 9-year-old Arkansas-bred gelding who gave Tobey Maguire, playing jockey Red Pollard, his first ride in "Seabiscuit," the movie that was nominated for a best-picture Oscar.

Early in the film, the Pollard character is introduced to the still-unaccomplished Seabiscuit by trainer Tom Smith, played by Chris Cooper.

"How far do you want me to take him?" Maguire says.

"Till he stops," Cooper says.

Then Rich In Dallas takes off across a stone bridge, up a hill, through a woods and into a meadow. Maguire is whooping with joy along the way, because he realizes what sort of equine engine he has underneath him.

At Los Alamitos on Saturday night, in a $5,900 race for thoroughbreds going 4 1/2 furlongs, Rich In Dallas, making the 69th start of his career, showed just a glimmer of that open-field speed. Last in a field of seven early, at the top of the stretch he and jockey Gary Boag didn't even look like they were going to hit the board. But then Rich In Dallas split horses near the wire and got up to take second place. He was beaten by 3 1/2 lengths, earning a $1,305 share of the purse for his owners, Bill Wildes and Ken Phillips, and trainer Curley Ortiz.

After the race, however, Rich In Dallas, instead of being led off to Ortiz's barn, was taken to the barn of trainer Jaime Gomez. Ortiz was handed a slip that said Rich In Dallas had been claimed out of the race by Gomez for $2,500.

Rich In Dallas won't race again. His purchase was paid for by an anonymous California donor who was part of an 11th-hour, Internet-generated plan to retire the horse to a happy life on a Maryland farm.

"I [claimed the horse] as a favor to an old friend," Gomez said.

A woman in Florida, who also preferred to remain anonymous, has pledged to the Exceller Fund the cost of a van, approximately $1,200, that will transport Rich In Dallas to his retirement home. The Exceller Fund, which is run entirely by volunteers on the Internet, was founded in 1997, the same year that Exceller, a Hall of Fame horse from the late 1970s, was turned over to a slaughterhouse in Sweden. Ferdinand, the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner, was reported to have met the same fate in Japan last year.

"Now Rich In Dallas can live out his days in comfort," said Hallie McEvoy, an author, publicist and horse breeder from Bolton Valley, Vt. "He's run 69 times, and that's enough. This horse is great around kids, and you can't say that about every hot-blooded racehorse. He's a movie star. He can help raise money that will lead to other horses' getting fitting retirements."

McEvoy said that before the two individual donations came in, she had received promises of between $2 and $200 from 100 people to help buy Rich In Dallas.

Cathy Riccio, an assistant to trainer Paco Gonzalez on the Southern California thoroughbred circuit, said Sunday that later this week Rich In Dallas will be vanned to Greener Pastures, a 160-acre farm in Cecilton, Md., where 16 horses will eventually be pensioned.

"Horses like these have put food on my table for the 25 years I've been in the business," Riccio said. "It's only right that we pay them back."

Wildes, the co-owner of Rich In Dallas, was one of the trainers for the 50 or 60 horses that were used in "Seabiscuit." Ten horses were used to play Seabiscuit. Wildes said that after the filmmakers gave him Rich In Dallas when filming ended, he sent him to Curley Ortiz at Los Alamitos, which runs mostly quarter horse races.

Rich In Dallas won only one race in 2003-04, but finished in the money six times. Lifetime he had six wins, 10 seconds and 12 thirds in 69 starts, with purses of $73,946. Ortiz said Rich In Dallas, not good enough to run at Santa Anita, didn't fit the shorter distances that Los Alamitos runs for thoroughbreds.

"He would have been better," Ortiz said, "at a place like Turfway Park," the track in Florence, Ky., where Rich In Dallas raced earlier in his career.

"I'll miss him," he said. "He ran his heart out every time."

Wildes, 57, has mixed feelings about losing Rich In Dallas. He has spent many years doctoring problem horses. Wildes said he worked on Sligo Bay before he won the 2002 Hollywood Turf Cup.

In recent months, Wildes, who lives in Whittier, has been in need of doctors himself. A spinal condition that required surgery last November hospitalized him for three months. On Saturday night, he needed Ortiz's help and a cane to navigate the Los Alamitos grandstand, where he watched Rich In Dallas' final race. Wildes had been in contact with McEvoy on the phone and suspected that a claim for the horse would be forthcoming.

"That's cool that he's going to have a good home," Wildes said. "That's great. He has been my only source of income lately, but I'll just have to move on. I hope to get a license and start training a few horses at Santa Anita."

Last fall, for publicity appearances, Wildes loaned Rich In Dallas to the National Horse Show in New York. That's where McEvoy, who was doing publicity for the show, first saw him.

"Angel Cordero [the retired Hall of Fame jockey] and [jockey] Richard Migliore rode him," said McEvoy. "The kids just loved him. They'd feed him peppermints, and he'd wait patiently until they got the cellophane off the candy. He's such a sweet horse."

At Los Alamitos on Sunday, word circulated that Gomez, if only temporarily, had "the Seabiscuit horse" in his barn. Someone called with an offer to buy Rich In Dallas for $10,000.

"Oh, no," Gomez said. "I'd get shot if I did that."

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