10/21/2001 11:00PM

Bet on Sunshine and McGee are in it together

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Paul McGee broke into horse racing at a tender age. In fact, he was only a few years older than Bet on Sunshine is now.

The 9-year-old Bet on Sunshine, the ageless one, has been with McGee as he has risen to become one of the top trainers in the Midwest. They have had six campaigns together and will hit a career milestone at exactly the same moment if Bet on Sunshine wins the Breeders' Cup Sprint. It would be McGee's second Grade 1 win (he won the 2000 Hollywood Starlet with I Believe in You) and would thrust him into the national spotlight after 24 years of hard work on the backstretch. The old gelding's record would be more indelible: He would be the oldest Breeders' Cup winner by two years, and probably a champion, the oldest since John Henry was voted Horse of the Year as a 9-year-old in 1984.

This is no idle fantasy. Bet on Sunshine has been in two Sprints already, one at age 5, one at 8, and has finished third both times, beaten a cumulative 1 3/4 lengths. If anything, his form this season is stronger than last year. Said owner David Holloway, "Like Paul likes to say, the horse doesn't know he's 9. He thinks he's still 3."

Bet on Sunshine's lifetime past performance lines read like a trip down memory lane. The horse is so old he was running against opponents who have become established sires. Look back to 1996, when he faced Forest Wildcat, Lord Carson, Golden Gear, and Valid Expectations, and 1997, when he raced against Pyramid Peak and Appealing Skier. Now those guys are hanging around pastures making regular visits to the breeding shed. Sunshine is getting ready to tangle with Kona Gold and Caller One.

Part of the reason the horse has lasted so long is the late start he got to his career. A Florida-bred by Bet Big, Bet on Sunshine was a repo-horse at age 2, sent back to Florida from California after his purchasers failed to pay in full. It was then that Holloway stumbled onto a $22,000 bargain, an investment that already has returned $1.4 million.

Bet on Sunshine didn't race until he was 3, and then only twice. But except for a short season in 1998, when he missed time with a strained suspensory ligament, he has been going steadily ever since - except for winters, when Holloway and McGee insist on resting their star. He is an amazingly consistent racehorse, with 21 wins in 41 starts and 36 top-three finishes. In the last two years, his 8- and 9-year-old seasons, he has won seven of 10 starts, and Holloway sees no reason the gelding shouldn't race again at 10, as long as he's physically sound.

"When you win almost every time you go to the track, you start expecting to win," Holloway said. "I don't know what I'll do when we retire him.

"He's been good for our whole family, but not just that," Holloway said. "I know people that don't usually go to the races who'll go and see him. That's good for racing."

Good for McGee, too. McGee, 39, had made a career choice and was sticking rigidly to it when a callow 15-year-old, one who knew little about the racetrack other than he loved it. A Louisville native, McGee went to Churchill Downs with his father, a fan, not a player in the game, yet these racetrack trips exerted a strangely powerful effect on the family. McGee's brother, Marty, is a Daily Racing Form correspondent, while both his sisters, Amy and Susan, have strong racing ties.

McGee took his first job walking hots for trainer Jerry Calvin at Churchill early in high school. "I was so enthralled with it all my first few days out there, I knew I was hooked," McGee said. He took study hall first period, so he could work later in the morning, instead of last period, as all his friends did in order to shorten their school day.

Within a couple years McGee moved way up the racetrack food chain when he got a chance one winter to break yearlings at Churchill. It was an exhilarating period, a kid thrown onto horseback for the first time, moving a step closer to fulfilling a dream. By the spring, he'd become a regular exercise rider and was accumulating priceless experience.

"When I was breaking babies, it was like the blind leading the blind," he said. "They didn't know how to be ridden, and I didn't know how to ride. I learned by getting thrown all the time. But in a matter of weeks, it ended up working out pretty well."

McGee served as an assistant to trainer Carl Bowman and eventually went out on his own, a 25-year-old with a $4,000 claimer named Pabarene. McGee had a backup plan all along, having earned a chemistry degree from Bellarmine College while working full-time at the track, but he never had to desert his dreams. His stable grew, first to 10 horses, then 20, where he thought for awhile he'd like it to stay, but before he knew it there were 30 horses under his care. Now there are 40, and they include a growing supply of well-bred youngsters for prominent owners such as Jan, Mace, and Samantha Siegel.

"I suppose some of the fire might be gone now, but I still love this. I really don't see myself as doing anything else," McGee said.

Especially when there's the rest of Bet on Sunshine's career to be taken care of. Bet on Sunshine was McGee's first horse for Holloway, and both would love to get a Breeders' Cup. It would have been magical to do it at home last year at Churchill, but they would take one at Belmont.

"Mr. Holloway has said all year he was going to win it this time," McGee said. "Boy, I sure hope he's right."