06/23/2002 11:00PM

At 41, Bullwinkle returns ready for petting


PLEASANTON, Calif. - Northern California's summer fair racing circuit moves to the Alameda County Fair for the next 12 days beginning Wednesday, and nobody could be happier than Bullwinkle.

No horse in the history of the Alameda County Fair has been to the starting gate more times than Bullwinkle, a 41-year-old former pony horse, or logged more miles around the track.

He is a fixture at the fair and will be paraded in front of the grandstand this year.

Bullwinkle is one of the oldest horses in the world and still lives in the stable area here with owner Val Tohill, a longtime trainer currently serving as an assistant to trainer Charlie Comiskey.

Anyone who knows Tohill knows Bullwinkle.

Two years ago, he did not make an appearance at the fair, and she was besieged by calls wondering if he had died.

Last year, he was on display in the Fairgrounds Pavilion near the livestock exhibitions, and he will be there again this year.

"The only problem was there was a fence that kept people away. Nobody could pet him, and he really likes it when people pet him," Tohill said.

Bullwinkle's genealogy is unknown. Tohill believes he may be half draft horse and half Tennessee walker.

"We paid $500 for him," said Tohill, who purchased Bullwinkle 27 years ago. "We certainly got our money's worth."

Tohill originally purchased Bullwinkle for her daughter, Kathy Tohill, who used him to pony horses during the fair and morning workouts. Tohill herself also used Bullwinkle to pony horses but stopped 10 years ago because she "thought he was too old."

Bullwinkle was around the track even before Tohill bought him.

Trainer Allen Rogers is Bullwinkle's unofficial historian.

"Chuck Henderson, a pony person, brought the horse to Pleasanton," Rogers said.

No one knows where Henderson found Bullwinkle, although one rumor is he was spotted in a pasture at a nearby farm. "Three years ago, I got a card from someone who said she rode Bullwinkle as a girl," Tohill said.

"[Henderson] used him for a short period, then [trainer] Chuck Brantley bought him," Rogers said.

"They used him and used him hard. That's a hard job on a horse, ponying. Other horses are constantly knocking into him, knocking him off stride. It's amazing he held up."

All his teeth

Bullwinkle still has all his teeth and is not on a special diet. He loves to stand in a small grassy area near his stall and graze. Tohill says veterinarians swing by her barn to see him and leave vitamins for him.

Tohill said she last rode Bullwinkle two months ago, and he played as if he were enjoying a second childhood, but he had trouble getting up the next morning so she decided to limit riding to her granddaughter as she walks Bullwinkle around the barn.

Tohill still takes Bullwinkle to the track for gallops.

"I pony him to the track every day, and he just plays. I can't believe him," she said. "He bites at my pony. He exercises and gallops long. He thoroughly enjoys being part of the activity."

Twelve days, seven stakes

There will be plenty of activity on the track over the next 12 days with Tuesday the only dark day. Seven Thoroughbred stakes, including the $50,000 Sam Whiting at six furlongs on Saturday, the $50,000 Everett Nevin Alameda County Futurity for 2-year-olds on July 5 and the $50,000 Alamedan at 1 1/16 miles on closing day, July 7, are scheduled, as well as six stakes races for emerging breeds.

There will be a daily Thoroughbred stakes from July 3 to closing day.



SITE: Alameda County Fairgrounds, 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton

RACING SCHEDULE: June 26-July 7, dark July 2

POST TIME: 12:15 p.m.

ADMISSIONS: $7 for adults; $5 seniors