10/24/2002 12:00AM

BC Countdown - Classic: This 'Medaglia' brewed in Montana


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Most horses who reach the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships are among the elite of their sport, bred and raised on classy farms in Kentucky or Europe. Occasionally an interloper breaks into this rarefied company, but it is safe to say that no horse raised on a modest farm on the Great Plains has ever before had a chance to win America's richest race.

That's the opportunity awaiting in Saturday's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic for Medaglia d'Oro, who grew up on Al Bell's farm in Montana.

"`You can't really speak of it as a farm like the ones in Kentucky," admitted Al Bell, who lives there with his wife, Joyce. "We've got 110 acres right on the edge of Great Falls. We've got three stalls, six paddocks, and three hay sheds."

This improbable location proved nurturing for the 3-year-old colt, who may be the Classic favorite Saturday at Arlington Park and, if he wins, could be voted America's Horse of the Year.

Breeding horses is the Bells' hobby, but their principal business has been horsepower. They used to operate a trucking company that made hauls to Alaska, mostly taking household goods for military personnel and oil field workers moving there. "The Alaska Highway was 1,256 miles of gravel, one-way," said Bell, who knew every rugged mile.

"I've driven about 2 1/2 million miles," he added.

After quitting that business, the Bells opened a truck dealership in Great Falls, and they were successful enough that they could indulge their interest in Thoroughbreds on a small scale.

Like many Westerners, the Bells grew up with horses. "When I was a young guy," Bell recalled, "I worked on ranches and did a little bareback riding in rodeos. When Joyce was a little girl her mother would wrap gunnysacks around her legs to keep her warm and put her on a horse, and she'd ride two or three miles to a schoolhouse."

In 1970 Bell bought a cheap mare who whetted his interest in the sport, and he started to study Thoroughbred bloodlines. By the early 1980's he was ready to take a small plunge and paid $65,000 for a well-bred mare named Dubbed In. She produced a colt, Maharesred, who ran in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, finishing a distant last. Then she foaled a daughter, Cappucino Bay, who won several races at Santa Anita. The Bells had a taste of big-time racing.

Because he now owned mares with respectable credentials, Bell wanted to breed to better stallions in Kentucky. He would load the mares in a trailer, hook it to his truck, and drive 1,860 miles to deliver the mares to their mates. On one of these trips he bred Cappucino Bay to the good stallion El Prado. After the colt was foaled (making him officially a Kentucky-bred), Bell brought him back to Montana, where he began to think that the youngster might be something special

"`In some 30 years of racing, I'd had more than 100 colts, and I'd gelded every one of them," Bell said, "`but I didn't geld this one. He had good conformation, and he really looked the role of a racehorse." He named the colt Medaglia d'Oro, after a brand of coffee, and the rest was history.

After Medaglia d'Oro won a maiden race at Oaklawn Park in February, trainer David Vance began getting overtures from buyers looking for a Kentucky Derby prospect. Vance told Bell: "If you say you'll take $300,000, he'll be gone like a hog takes to slop." Bell wasn't interested in selling, but when he was offered $500,000 he was tempted. He wouldn't have to kick himself if Medaglia d'Oro developed into a star, because he still owned the dam, and her value would skyrocket. This scenario would be more likely if the colt were put in the care of a leading trainer, and when Vance told him the new trainer would be Eclipse Award-winning Bobby Frankel, Bell responded, "How can you top that?" He sold.

Medaglia d'Oro ran well in two stakes before the Kentucky Derby and went to Churchill Downs regarded as a prime contender. But he lost all three of the Triple Crown races, managing only a second-place finish in the Belmont Stakes. Frankel was disappointed but not surprised; he had rushed the colt to get him into the Triple Crown races, contrary to his preferred style. Frankel's forte is managing horses judiciously, spacing their races, and getting them to run well off layoffs.

After he finally gave Medaglia d'Oro a breather, Frankel brought him to Saratoga, where he won the Jim Dandy Stakes by more than 13 lengths and then captured the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 24. Medaglia d'Oro had run so well after being freshened that Frankel decided to bring him into the Breeders' Cup the same way.

"`Right now," the trainer said, "he's at the top of his game. His works have been unbelievable. If I ran him, all I could do was take something out of him instead of putting something in. So I figured I would train him right into the race."

Bell will be here to watch Medaglia d'Oro run for the $4 million purse, and he will be asked about four million times if he regrets selling the colt. Emphatically, he says, "I'm not second-guessing nothing." He has good reason to feel satisfied. He made a substantial profit on the sale; he has already turned down an offer of $1.2 million for the mare; and he has had the thrill of seeing a horse he bred and raised make an improbable journey to the top of his sport.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post