01/20/2009 1:00AM

Barba, Victory Pete seek day in sun


ARCADIA, Calif. - For a nation gripped in a bitter winter of cold weather and economic uncertainty, distracted only momentarily by Inauguration Day, it seems almost in poor taste to stage something as frivolous as a Sunshine Millions. There hasn't been a whole lot of either lately.

But hey, bread and circuses aren't all bad. Even Marie Antoinette had the right idea about eating cake. Was it her fault no one told her that Paris had run out of food? So here we go again on Saturday, at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, with what has become the annual confection of January racing, rich in purse calories and abjectly lacking in historic nutrition.

In Florida, there will be a million-dollar race for older runners on the main track called the Sunshine Millions Classic (a nickel for anyone who can name at least three of the six previous winners - okay, Lava Man

. . . that's one). If Delightful Kiss joins them, trainer Pete Anderson gets to be known once and for all for something other than Forego's former jockey. Not that he minds.

In California, the serious money will be attached to the $500,000 Sunshine Millions Turf. Same offer on that nickel, although the list of past Turf winners holds up pretty good as a restricted event. And yes, Lava Man won that one, too.

So did Miesque's Approval, the same year he won the Breeders' Cup Mile. But if there is a horse with that kind of potential in the field this time around, he has yet to tip his hand. The Turf, at 1 1/8 miles, looks very much up for grabs.

This should be good news to trainer Alexis Barba and owners Pete and Ellen Johnson. They will try to win the Sunshine Millions Turf with Victory Pete, a 4-year-old son of Five Star Day who has done little more than win an allowance race on the main track at Hollywood Park in December. Earlier, Victory Pete was on the 2008 Kentucky Derby trail just long enough to get his picture taken by ESPN at Oaklawn Park as he prepared to run in the Arkansas Derby.

"It was the day before the race, and he went great," Barba recalled. "He's a little tough, so he gets unsaddled in the stall. Then he took a step out of the stall and I went, 'Oh, I didn't really see that did I?' It was a very badly bruised foot."

It was also pretty easy to figure out how it happened. Victory Pete and the rest of the horses at Santa Anita last January spent their time training over a Cushion Track surface that had been scraped, rolled, and reduced to virtual hardpan because it would neither drain nor dry. Victory Pete's big, flat feet took all the punishment, and as a result he did not race from early March - when he was third to Colonel John in the Sham Stakes - until late November.

"He's always been a pretty good-sized horse," Barba noted. "Now he's heavier and more mature mentally and physically. He's also a bit of a pistol. Not vicious, but he'll try to bite you in the belly when you're trying to get the halter on. I like to think of it as part of a game."

Barba, 56, has a small public stable and a handful of clients, all of them tracing in one way or another back to her days as chief assistant to Eddie Gregson. Barba joined the Gregson stable in 1981, when Gato Del Sol was a 2-year-old, and was there not only for Gato's 1982 Kentucky Derby shocker, but also the exploits of such fine animals as Super Diamond, Petite Ile, Tsunami Slew, Candi's Gold, Love Smitten, and Sunny Blossom.

Barba's professional world came crashing down on June 4, 2000, when she learned that Gregson, who was 61, had taken his own life with a gun in his South Pasadena office. It became her job to hold the stable together in the traumatic days and weeks that followed.

"It feels like yesterday, so vivid," Barba said. "And just a brutal day. I remember wanting to get there early enough to tell the help before they started hearing the rumors."

In the nearly nine years since, Barba has been working hard to keep a toehold in the business. The Johnsons, her primary clients, are Wisconsin residents who winter in California. They paid $75,000 for Victory Pete as a 2-year-old in March 2007, on Barba's recommendation.

"The day I bought him, I told Peter this horse makes my heart go pitter-pat," Barba said. "That doesn't happen too often at all."

Nor does someone like Eddie Gregson. He was a man of many interests beyond the racetrack who surrounded himself with similarly diverse individuals. He also was one of only a small group of known Democrats to hold a California trainer's license. Barba, who backed the winner of the last election, allowed herself to wonder, "What would Eddie think?" as she watched Inauguration Day unfold Tuesday morning.

"Victory Pete goes out at 9 o'clock every day, including today, right in the middle of prime time," Barba said. That meant the colt was just heading back to the barn as Barack Obama was taking the oath of office.

"Sacrifices have to be made," Barba added with a laugh. "But he's doing great. I just hope he runs as great as he's been training."

Right. But was she talking about the horse or the new president?

"Both of them," she replied.