03/25/2010 11:00PM

Alphie's Bet takes breeder to top level

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In the 1980s, Teresa McWilliams attended a California horse sale and was quickly in an awkward situation.

McWilliams, a real estate agent in the Santa Barbara area, took a fancy to a few of the yearlings available and bought one - and then another, and then another.

"I got so excited I put my hand up six times," she recalled recently. "I didn't know what I was doing. It was pretty this, pretty that. That's how I started, that was about 25 years ago.

"I called my bank manager and said, 'I don't have this much in my checking account. I need to put some money in my account,' " McWilliams said. "He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Are you sitting down? I just bought six racehorse yearlings.' "

The spur of the moment activity that led to those purchases has given way to a more calculated breeding program. The plan is working. McWilliams will have her first starter in a Grade 1 stakes in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby next Saturday with the California-bred Alphie's Bet, a colt she bred.

Co-owned by Peter Johnson Sr. and McWilliams, Alphie's Bet approaches the Santa Anita Derby in the best form of his career. On March 6, Alphie's Bet won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes over 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita. The course and distance of the Sham are the same as the Santa Anita Derby. Another big result from Alphie's Bet could result in McWilliams having her first starter in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1.

The success of Alphie's Bet has been more than McWilliams expected.

"I was surprised by how well he ran," she said of the Sham. "This was the first time I'd seen him in the middle of the pack."

Alphie's Bet, who is by Tribal Rule out of Miss Alphie, closed from sixth in a field of 10 to win the Sham Stakes by 2 1/4 lengths, finishing in 1:48.72. The colt has won 2 of 5 starts and $141,320. Winless in his first two races, Alphie's Bet was second behind Caracortado in the California Breeders' Champion Stakes on Dec. 26 and followed that promising performance with a victory in a one-mile turf race for maidens on Jan. 15.

Trained by Alexis Barba, Alphie's Bet made his first start against open company in the Sham Stakes. Barba and McWilliams have had a lengthy partnership. Barba was the assistant to the late Eddie Gregson, who had McWilliams's horses in her first years as an owner. Gregson bred Pine Away, Alphie's Bet's second dam.

McWilliams has a lifelong history with racehorses.

Born in Poland, McWilliams was a young girl in 1939 when her family fled Poland hours in advance of the German army's arrival. The family escaped through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Italy before arriving in England where they stayed until 1949, the year they emigrated to the United States.

In Poland, her father had a prominent racing stable.

"He had some very good horses," McWilliams said. "He tried to hide them and put them behind plows during the war."

Barba keeps Miss Alphie at River Edge Farm in Buellton, Calif., where Tribal Rule stands at stud. Miss Alphie, who is by Candi's Gold, had one victory in seven starts for McWilliams. Alphie's Bet is Miss Alphie's first foal to race. The family includes a 2-year-old Benchmark filly and a yearling colt by Unusual Heat.

McWilliams said she relies on the advice of River Edge Farm manager Russell Drake for breeding matters.

"We had some nice horses, and this is a nice family," McWilliams said.

It may soon be a family that produced a Kentucky Derby starter.