10/28/2010 11:55AM

In the Cal Cup Mile, winner's circle may be aptly named


Liberian Freighter likes to cut it close, real close, like he did this summer in the Harry F. Brubaker Stakes at Del Mar, and then more recently in Hollywood Park’s version of the Oak Tree Mile. The verdict each time was a nose, and it doesn’t figure to get any easier on Saturday, when Liberian Freighter could go postward the most skittish of favorites in the $100,000 California Cup Mile.

Chuck Winner, Liberian Freighter’s principal owner, would prefer a conclusive victory – like the one he is cautiously anticipating next Tuesday in California’s ballot proposition 23 – but he knows that in horse racing, as with elections, a win is a win is a win.

His company, Winner & Associates, specializes in orchestrating campaigns for ballot measures. He has seven measures cooking nationwide and coming to a boil on Election Day. Of the three Winner has going in California, his “No on Prop. 23” has been the heavyweight bout, going up against the oil company interests backing a measure that would suspend the implementation of a sweeping pollution standards law until the state’s unemployment rate – currently topping 12 percent – drops to 5.5 percent or lower for a full year. Californians can apparently do the math, and smell the air – “No on 23” was leading, 48 percent to 32 percent, in this week’s L.A. Times/USC poll.

At the same time, Winner has an uphill battle on his hands with support for Prop. 21, which would establish an $18 surcharge on vehicle license fees that would go toward the funding of state parks and wildlife programs. The carrot is free admission to state parks for anyone paying the surcharge. The stick is the word “surcharge.”

“That’s a tough one, really tough,” Winner said. “It’s basically a fee on top of a license fee, which I don’t think a lot of people want to pay. As for 23, it’s going to be reasonably close, but I think we’ll win.”

In terms of celebrity backing, Winner’s campaign to defeat Prop 23 has had the support of Robert Redford, Bill Gates, James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and both candidates to succeed Schwarzenegger as governor, Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. In California, this can be helpful.

Liberian Freighter won’t have quite the same kind of cheering section on Saturday in the Cal Cup Mile, although he does have Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale in his corner, along with Drysdale’s wife, Shawn Dugan, who is also part-owner of the horse.

The Mile is always a popular feature on the California Cup program, playing to the strengths of whatever quality grass horses emerge from the state’s breeding program. Get too good, though, and the Cal Cup loses you to the Breeders’ Cup Mile, as has happened this year with West Coast division leader The Usual Q. T., who would lay over the local field at about 1-5.

In The Usual Q. T.’s absence, Liberian Freighter sports a record worthy of respect, with 8 wins from 22 starts and close to $600,000 in earnings. Now 5, this son of Bertrando finished third in the CC Mile two years ago, but was on the shelf for the 2009 running after winning two stakes for Cal-breds earlier in the year.

Liberian Freighter seemed content with his role as a reliable performer in restricted events until he popped in the Oct. 9 Oak Tree Mile, a Grade 2 race, at 22-1. Winner was asked if he was too busy with his proposition campaigns that day to have a flutter.

“I’m not a big player,” Winner began, and here it comes, ”but I did okay. I did some of the exotics, and every once in a while that turns out to be not throwing away money. This was one of those cases.”

For the record, the one-buck exacta to heartbreak runner-up Colgan’s Chip that day paid $116, while the $1 trifecta with the well-backed Tropic Storm was worth $606. I’m guessing Winner, even though not a “big player,” is the kind of guy who usually bets more than a dollar.

Liberian Freighter will have to deal with Colgan’s Chip again on Saturday, along with Bruce’s Dream, beaten just a length in the Del Mar Mile. There are just six horses running in the Cal Cup Mile, a stark testimony to the thinning ranks of the state’s Thoroughbred inventory, and the $100,000 purse being offered this year is the lowest in its 21-year history.

For nearly 25 years Winner has been deeply involved in Thoroughbred ownership through various partnerships, most notably with fellow political consultant David Beinstock. Winner has enjoying success with such runners as Magical Fantasy, Three Degrees, Domestic Dispute, Fantastic Spain, Walkslikeaduck, and Daytona, as well as having an interest in the high-profile 3-year-olds I Want Revenge and The Pamplemousse.

Winner currently has about 40 horses in various categories of racing and breeding right now. Much to his chagrin, he has had to send some of them to casino-enriched Pennsylvania for his investment to make economic sense.

“Randy Allen has them there for us, and he’s done great,” Winner said. “The horses who don’t do as well here can do quite well back there for some very god purses.

“We’d much rather run here, though,” Winner noted. “First of all we’d get to see the horses, spend some time with them like I like to do. When they’re back there, you sort of watch them on television or the Internet, which is about 10 percent as enjoyable. It’s very sad.”

Even with the intense swarm of polling and media buys Winner must ramrod over these last few days of the election season, a trip to Hollywood Park on Saturday to see Liberian Freighter try to win his third straight race is a must.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “After all, Liberian Freighter is campaigning for me.”