08/04/2009 3:35PM



For starters, I am not qualified to comment on any cultural phenomenon involving the sexual pursuit of younger men by older women, although once my high school German teacher Miss McBride kept me after class for no apparent reason other than to conjugate the verb "to juggle" - jonlieren, as it turns out - while standing at the blackboard in my gym shorts.

The term "cougar" began life innocently enough as the name of a big, predatory feline, morphed into a muscle car by Mercury, and later took a side trip as a neo-psychedelic intrumental group from Wisconsin. Now, the word conjurs visions of a college kid's divorced, middle-aged mom on the make, played in her dreams by Jennifer Aniston. I love the Engligh language.

Racing had its very own Cougar prowling the land in the early 1970's, and he was a beauty. At rest he was all lines and shadows, dark bay with black points and a splash of white where the girth hit his flank. In motion he was relentlessly churning, head and knees high, with a long tail and curled mane snapping in time to his breathtaking stretch runs.

Cougar   Cougar car

Which of these Cougars will be on display Wednesday at Del Mar? Answer: none.

For those who did not have the joy of watching him run, all you need to know is that he had a fan club that unfurled "Go Cougar!" banners when he appeared, and racetracks built promotions around him. Three years ago Cougar was elected to the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame by the Historical Review committee, which was mopping up for the nearly 30 years he was ignored by the regular voting process. I am on that committee. It was not a tough call. All we had to do was look at these past performances to know he belonged:

Download CougarII.

Del Mar renamed its musty old Escondido Handicap the Cougar a few years ago, and now the mile and a half main track event has become a nominal steppingstone to the Breeders' Cup Marathon. Cougar himself could have won at least four of the races on the Breeders' Cup menu, including the Classic and the Turf. He also would have held up the telecast stopping to stare at the crowd. But that was just him.

For Wednesday's running of the Cougar, the Del Mar marketing department has decided to honor the horse with a Cougar Contest. Apparently there were some left over from opening day, wandering the grandstand, reeking of stale margaritas and desperation (I told you I was no authority). Miss Cougar will be crowned Wednesday afternoon, and the winner - along with her plastic surgeon - will present the trophy for the race.

Looking down from the Directors' Room, undoubtedly wearing an expression of worldly bemusement, will be Mary Bradley, who will be making a rare appearance at the races to help celebrate the memory of her most famous horse. Then known as Mary Jones - she had been married to singer Alan Jones, who played straight man to the Marx Brothers in "A Day at the Races" - Bradley bought Cougar after watching him race at Del Mar during the summer of 1970, and along with trainer Charlie Whittingham, they made their share of racing history. Cougar's portait by Richard Stone Reeves still can be found over Bradley's mantle, while the trophies from his 16 stakes victories are scattered throughout her home.

Those few purists still lurking around the game will be aghast at the Cougar cross promotion, and there is a real possibility, especially if the cougar concept persists, that in a few years fans will wonder why Ellen Barkin gets a race named for her. But hey, it's Del Mar. Wait until you see what they've got planned for next month's I'm Smokin Stakes. Asked what she thought of the Cougar Contest being hooked to the running of the Cougar Handicap, classy Mary Bradley replied, "I think it's silly, and it's okay. Although I'm sure Couger wouldn't have understood."

True, but he would have stolen the show.