01/19/2012 10:37PM

Two Sirs, with Love

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The two dark bays – one a stallion, the other a gelding - live 300 miles apart in the Sunshine State. They have never met, but they’re bound both by blood and the love of their faithful owners.

Above:  Sir Leon at age 30, and Sir Bear at 19, in January 2012.

The property doesn’t seem out of place in the south Florida neighborhood. There’s an airy and lovely house, lush greenery with a few palm trees, a small canal out by the street and an attractive and tidy barn behind the house. Then what makes it so unusual? Why, a multimillionaire horse lives in the backyard.

You remember Sir Bear, don’t you? He won three Grade Is and earned over $2.5 million, racing 71 times during a remarkable 8-year career. Yet breeders Al and Barbara Smollin’s hopes couldn’t have been that high when he was born 19 years ago. After all, Sir Bear’s dam, Spicy Pearl, also bred by the Smollins, won 4 of 31 starts –30 of which were claiming races. At the time, Spicy Pearl was the Smollins’ only broodmare.

For her mate, they chose Sir Leon, a solid stallion whose wins included two Seminole Handicaps (G2) and several minor stakes. Al was Sir Leon’s primary veterinarian, and over time he and Barbara became good friends with Sir Leon’s owner, Lucille Geranis, and her husband Andy.

It was Lucille who picked Sir Leon out at the 1984 Fasig-Tipton Florida Selected 2-year-olds-in-training sale. She and Andy were viewing the horses circling the walking ring when the dark bay son of Private Account caught her eye.

“I looked at him and he looked at me, and I fell in love with him,” Lucille recalls. “I told my husband that I never wanted another present for Valentine’s Day. I just wanted that horse.”  

Sir Leon was off to a promising start when, as a 3-year-old, he suffered a severe knee injury in the Flamingo Stakes. Dr. Stephen Selway performed advanced knee surgery - uncommon in those days. 

The colt didn’t return to the races for more than a year and a half, but when he did he captured two consecutive Seminole Handicaps (G2) at Hialeah Park. He loved Hialeah and did well at Gulfstream, too.  But - for whatever reason - Sir Leon was 0-for-25 at his home base, Calder.

Sir Leon raced 56 times over six seasons, with 12 wins, 8 second- or third-place finishes and earnings of $450,794 (toss Calder out, and you’ve got a very impressive 12 wins in 31 starts). Six of his victories came in stakes races.  The dark bay, trained by Hal Rose, Jr., had earned a chance at stud. 

Al had become so impressed by Sir Leon’s heart and determination that he and Barbara were happy to send their mare to him. And so, Sir Bear came to be.

He debuted Feb. 22, 1996, in a claiming race at Gulfstream. But after a second-place finish and a subsequent 3-length score in another claimer – 6 furlongs in 1:09.94 - he was never again offered for a tag.

Racing in Barbara’s name and trained by Ralph Ziadie, Sir Bear racked up an impressive resume of stakes victories: 

1996: Jackie Wackie H.

1998: Cigar Mile (G1), Excelsior Breeders’ Cup H. (G3), Thistledown Breeders’ Cup H. (G2), Broward H. (G3).

1999: Metropolitan H. (G1), Broward H. (G3)

2000: Cornhusker Breeders’ Cup (G3), Texas Mile S. (G3)

2001: Gulfstream Park H. (G1)

2002: Skip Away H. (G3)

Sir Bear and Jerry Bailey win the Grade I 1998 Cigar Mile (above) and, below, trainer Ralph Ziadie and owner Barbara Smollin celebrate the win.

Sir Bear wins the 1999 Metropolitan Handicap, above, and Ralph Ziadie and Barbara Smollin lead Sir Bear and John Velazquez down Belmont's Grade I victory lane, below.

When he wasn’t winning, Bear was often finishing in the money in races like the Donn, Suburban, Widener, Gulfstream Park H., Metropolitan, Iselin, the Brooklyn and the Meadowlands Cup. Fans fell in love with the sweet-faced gelding with the adorable name – and with the outgoing and engaging Smollins. 

They were happy to share in the fun, answering questions cheerfully and always displaying great admiration and love for their homebred. That Barbara was too nervous to watch Sir Bear’s races – she went to the track but averted her eyes when he raced – made Bear’s connections, well, all the more human.

Barbara and Al shared the adventures with their good friends, Sir Leon's owners, Lucille and Andy. When Bear would rub his dirty head against Barbara's clean outfits as she led him to the winner's circle, everyone laughed. Winner’s circle tapes show the foursome having the times of their lives.

When Sir Bear won the G3 Skip Away at age 9, narrowly defeating classic winner Red Bullet, the announcer excitedly called Bear "the old man."   But by a year later, when Sir Bear finished 11th in the 2003 Ocala Breeders Sales Classic Stakes, it marked Bear's 7th consecutive loss.  His retirement was announced.

All told, Sir Bear raced 71 times over eight fun seasons. He recorded 19 wins, 12 seconds and 14 thirds, and he earned $2,536,922. Not bad for a Sir Leon – Spicy Pearl gelding.

Nowadays, Sir Bear lives in a lovely custom-made barn – designed by Barbara and built to withstand hurricanes - in a neighborhood in Southwest Ranches. A barn-mate named Regal Bear - another Sir Leon gelding bred by the Smollins - keeps him company. Sir Bear lives the life of beloved pensioner, going out each morning with Regal Bear, occasionally bucking and rearing like a kid. Not only do Barbara and Al prepare special feed and watch out for his every need, but, should Bear swing his large hind end Barbara’s way, she will happily scratch the top of his rump. 

Meanwhile, 300 miles north, Sir Leon – now 30 - spends his days in quiet fashion at Get Away Farm near Ocala. Andy Geranis passed away in 2009, but Lucille carries on.

Age is catching up with Sir Leon, and his back is a bit swayed, his hair thin in spots. He still has solid legs, good feet and a proud stallion-like manner, but he has difficulty with his vision and moves around carefully. He’s brought inside when the weather is bad but far prefers being out in his paddock. In winter’s chill, he sprouts an impressive coat, and the farm staff puts a thick blanket on him.

Sir Leon has not yet sired anything approaching the quality of Sir Bear, but few stallions have. Of Sir Leon’s 120-plus foals - he still has several too young to race - the second-best is the stakes winner Sir Dusty ($142,507).

When Get Away Farm has stallion shows, a few people ask about the old stallion or wander over to his paddock to see the aged stallion. But Sir Leon still has one occasional visitor who cherishes him - a woman who, 28 years ago, looked him in the eyes and fell in love.  

                                                            *           *            *

Above/below:  Sir Leon (born May 23, 1982, by Private Account - Oh So Sweet II, by Ballymoss).  At Get Away Farm in Lowell, Florida, on January 3, 2012.

Above:  Sir Bear, left, at age 19, and his sire Sir Leon, now 30, at right.  Notice the similarities between the two - right down to the white hairs throughout their faces.

Above:  Sir Leon (top) and Sir Bear, in January 2012.  

Above and below:  Back to Sir Bear....  Soon after his retirement, in March 2003, with Barbara and Al Smollin.  While Barbara occasionally rode Sir Bear, minor physical issues have kept her from doing so recently.

Above/below:  Barbara, Al and Sir Bear, 2003 and, below, Barbara with Sir Bear in 2012.

Above:  Sir Bear gives a kiss on command - at least when carrots are involved.

Above:  Regal Bear, who lives across the aisle from Sir Bear, can't bear to watch his buddy get a treat.  After all, Regal Bear is a stakes horse, too!  He ran third in the Sophomore Turf Stakes at Tampa, and he earned $54,899.  Regal Bear is now 12.

Above and below:  Among the many Sir Bear-related items in the Smollins' home are gifts made by adoring fans - such as the "Millionaire Bear," above, made when Sir Bear became a millionaire, and a horse-themed clock which reads "I LOVE SIR BEAR....LOVE, LOVE."

Above:  Sir Bear's barn and the paddocks are visible from the back porch.

Above:  Sir Bear (born May 8, 1993, by Sir Leon - Spicy Pearl, by Bet Big), in Southwest Ranches, Florida in January 2012.  Doesn't he look great for age 19?

I was unable to find any online videos of Sir Leon racing, but here is Sir Bear's 1998 Excelsior: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvT064fL170

Sir Bear's 1998 Broward Handicap victory: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQzi6VDplP0

Sir Leon's past performances:  http://www.equibase.com/premium/eqbHorseInfo.cfm?refno=902426&registry=T

Sir Bear's past performances: http://www.equibase.com/premium/eqbHorseInfo.cfm?refno=1404234&registry=T

Thank you to Barbara and Al Smollin, Lucille Geranis, Tom Hall (lordatwar on Twitter) and Get Away Farm manager Larry Anderson for their assistance.