05/27/2009 11:00PM

Brush with greatness is grand

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Benoit & Associates
Lemon Chiffon takes on Grade 1 foes in Saturday's Gamely at Hollywood Park.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Believe it or not, there are more than just those two female Thoroughbreds at large in America. In fact, a gate load of them will be on display Saturday at Hollywood Park in the 43rd running of the Gamely Stakes.

Neither Rachel Alexandra nor Zenyatta will be among them, which reduces general media interest to about zip. Still, a Grade 1, nine-furlong grass event with a chorus line that includes such tempting components as Black Mamba, Diamond Diva, Tuscan Evening, and Magical Fantasy gives players ripe choices.

Trainer Sean McCarthy is tossing Ron Beegle's Lemon Chiffon into the mix, and why not? In the Year of the Bird, anything seems possible. Lemon Chiffon did win the Las Madrinas Handicap at Fairplex Park last September and has done very little wrong since then, including her steadily closing third at Churchill Downs on Derby Day in the carefully named Distaff Turf Mile, a one-mile race on the grass for fillies and mares. Lemon Chiffon and Mike Smith were beaten 1 1/4 lengths by Tizaqueena.

"When Mike pulled up, the first thing he said was 'Sean, if I could have got to the middle or the outside I could have won,' " McCarthy recalled. "My first reaction is, 'Oh, please don't tell me that.' But he said, 'If I would have tried to get out, I would have had to have done something ignorant, that might not have been in our best interests.' And he was right. He never really had a shot to get off the rail without forcing an issue. So he made the right decision."

Lemon Chiffon had been on the road before, when she finished a respectable fourth last summer to Communique in the Modesty Handicap at Arlington Park. After a strong 2009 debut in a turf sprint at Santa Anita, the Churchill Downs race was a well-calculated gamble. And while Beegle and McCarthy did not bring home the grand prize, the experience of running a horse on the Derby undercard was priceless.

Beegle, a former executive with the Gap clothing chain and founder of the private equity firm Goode Partners, got to tap into the overwhelming drama of the Derby Day scene while walking over with McCarthy and Lemon Chiffon for their race. As a motivational tool, there are few more inspiring moments.

"He was looking up at the stands and said, 'Man, this is awesome. This is what it's all about,' " McCarthy said. "And he was right. If you can go onto that stage with a loaded gun and perform at all, it's a lot of fun."

Of course, McCarthy understands that those 150,000 or so weren't all there to watch Lemon Chiffon take on Visit and Dawn After Dawn in the Distaff Turf Mile. And even if the mare had been lucky enough to win, McCarthy would have been little more than a footnote to the story of trainer Chip Woolley and his 50-1 Derby winner Mine That Bird later in the day.

"That's true, but I would have remembered," McCarthy said. "And it worked out great. Our race was about three hours before the Derby. We got her back to the barn and got back over there in plenty of time to knock off about four mint juleps and enjoy the Derby."

Lemon Chiffon is a daughter of Lemon Drop Kid and the Tabasco Cat mare Cataballerina. This puts her in the thick of a grand old Claiborne Farm female family that includes File, the dam of Forty Niner, and Tuerta, the dam of Swale. Lemon Chiffon is also a 6-year-old mare with just 10 starts to her name, making the first of those for her breeder, Marguerite Clifford, in January 2007. As a freshly turned 4-year-old maiden, she won a sprint down the hillside turf course at Santa Anita.

"When she was 2 we had to stop on her for a tibia," McCarthy said. "We brought her back and had to stop for the other tibia. Then she'd get a little bruising here, bruising there, but knock on wood she never fractured anything and never had surgery."

She did, however, go nearly 15 months between her first and second starts. During that period, Clifford died, and Beegle purchased Lemon Chiffon from the stable dispersal. By McCarthy's standards, the mare has run only one poor race since then.

"That was at Del Mar on the Polytrack," the trainer said. "It was a little stakes race I thought she could snag and she just couldn't handle the surface. But we had to give it a try."

Apparently, Lemon Chiffon did not hold a grudge. She bounced right back to win the Las Madrinas on the Pomona bullring by 5 1/2 lengths.

McCarthy, who does a good job as a part-time HRTV analyst on the side, is one of those solid, well-schooled horsemen who deserves a chance to see what he can do with a real breakout runner. At 46, the Bay Area native has run his own farm, worked for other people - including Duane Offield, Monty Roberts, and Charlie Whittingham - and operated a public stable long enough to know better.

"If anybody tells me I still need to pay my dues, I might want to knock them in the head," McCarthy said with a laugh. "I did pick up a few more horses lately. But the angle I'm playing now is just outlasting them. I'm hearing a few of these grumpy old bastards walking around here talking about retiring. I'm figuring, if I hang in there long enough I might get somewhere by default.

"Like Charlie always told me," McCarthy added. "Don't quit."