11/27/2007 12:00AM

Breed crossover: Double the fun

EmailTUCSON, Ariz. - When the 4-year-old filly Kettleoneup romped to a 3o3/4-length victory in the $324,300 Falls City Handicap last Thursday afternoon at Churchill Downs, beating High Heels and even-money favorite Panty Raid, it sent no major vibrations reverberating through Thoroughbred racing.

It did send a message, however, worth noting on both sides of the Thoroughbred-harness aisle.

The owner of the filly, Tom Crouch of Lexington, Ky., is little known in Thoroughbred racing. He is a major figure in harness racing, owner of one of that sport's most successful farms, Kentuckiana, breeder of three Hambletonian winners and two Little Brown Jug winners - that game's most prestigious events for 3-year-old trotters and pacers, respectively - and a veteran of four decades of winning with Standardbreds.

Crouch told Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal that while the Falls City was not the biggest money race he had won, "it was the most exciting and means the most to me."

Beating Panty Raid, a Grade 1 winner on dirt and Polytrack, also was exciting and meant a lot to Calvin Borel, who rode Kettleoneup. Exactly a year earlier, Borel had watched Ermine, a filly he was to ride in the 2006 Falls City, win without him. He saw that race from a hospital bed, not a saddle, having broken his wrist a few races earlier.

Tom Crouch is one of a very few highly successful businessmen-horsemen who understand that money can be made in racing with a little creativity and a lot of vision. He checks his breed preferences on a harness hook when he leaves his farm, undoubtedly recalling the exploits of Hugh Grant, who was winning major Thoroughbred stakes with Airman's Guide and major harness stakes with Countess Adios when Crouch was starting out in the game 40 years ago.

Ownership crossovers are rare in horse racing these days, and it is illogical and costly. Although most major owners, Thoroughbred or harness, are men of means who attained their wealth through their smarts and enterprise, they frequently abandon their wisdom, business expertise, and good judgment once they select silks for their stable, one horse or 100. They regularly entrust decision-making authority to employees, which they would never do in their daily business life.

The folly of breed prejudices marring sound financial racing judgments came to mind two days after Crouch's filly won at Churchill. On Saturday night, at the Meadowlands, $4.7 million in purses was on the line. It was Breeders Crown night, harness racing's version of the Breeder' Cup, an event started by John Gaines, a far-seer who cut his teeth, like his father, Clarence, in harness racing.

There were eight Crowns, for 2- and 3-year-old trotters and pacers, both fillies and colts. Each carried a purse between $550,000 and $650,000. Eight of the nine 3-year-old trotting colts had won a minimum of $250,000 - some more than a million dollars - this year. One of them, the almost certain Harness Horse of the Year, Donato Hanover, won $3 million at ages 2 and 3 before being retired following the Crown. The best drivers in the sport were up behind these colts, and one of them - the sport's superstar John Campbell - surpassed $250 million in earnings of his mounts when he won a Crown with the 2-year-old filly Snow White, the fastest and richest 2-year-old in the long history of harness racing. That victory made Campbell the richest money-winning driver or jockey active in American racing today, ranking fourth all-time behind only retired Pat Day, Jerry Bailey, and Chris McCarron.

Snow White sold for $43,000 as a yearling. None of the eight Crown winners cost more than $80,000. One of them, the 3-year-old pacing filly Artcotic, was a $5,000 yearling, and the beaten favorite in that race, Southwind Tempo, cost $3,500 and has won $849,554. The 3-year-old trotting filly Southwind Serena, a $45,000 yearling, is trained by Per Henriksen, who also trains Thoroughbreds.

This is not to draw invidious comparisons with the more than 60 horses that sold for $1 million or more at Keeneland in September and November. It is simply making a case that owners of horses, regardless of breed, should not ignore the economic truths of ROI, or return on investment. And they should not be afraid or too proud to cross breed lines.

If you are going to play a game where the odds of physical fragility are against you from the start, where ego often overcomes experience and pride and prejudice overcome prudence, it makes sense to forget the breed.

Widen your horizons. It works both ways. Ask Tom Crouch next time you see him in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs.