07/22/2008 11:00PM

Christmas in July for Bustin Stones owner

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - As a horse owner who lives within 20 miles of Saratoga Race Course, this time of year is always special to Roddy Valente.

"This is Christmas for me," Valente said on the eve of the opening of Saratoga's 140th season. "Six weeks of Christmas."

As the owner and breeder of the undefeated Grade 1 winner Bustin Stones, Valente is hoping Santa Claus can deliver him a victory in Saturday's Grade 2 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. A victory in the Vanderbilt would earn Bustin Stones a Win and You're In spot in the starting gate for the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

It's the first Saratoga stakes race Valente will participate in during his 16 years as a horse owner.

"It's just the thrill of a lifetime to enter a horse of this caliber in a Grade 2 at Saratoga," said Valente, who lives in Loudonville, near Albany.

Valente, 52, owns a sand, gravel, and stone company in the Capital District. As his business grew, Valente's level of involvement in racing increased, especially after hooking up with trainer Bruce Levine 15 years ago.

As good as Levine has been for Valente is as good as Valente has been for Levine.

"He came by when I was really struggling," said Levine, who runs one of the strongest stables on this circuit. "It really helped me; I didn't have anybody really putting money up. It helped my business grow and branch out. He got people that he knows into the game. I got a bunch of owners from up this way."

Valente had success claiming horses in California and shipping them east to Levine. His ideology was that since California doesn't really have an off-season, he could claim a decent horse and perhaps win an allowance or stakes race in the winter at Aqueduct, where the competition isn't as stern.

Two of his biggest success stories were Coyote Lakes, who won three runnings of the Gallant Fox Handicap, and Svea Dahl, who won the Turnback the Alarm Handicap at Aqueduct.

One horse Valente claimed in California did not work out so well. At least on the track. On Nov. 17, 2000, he claimed Shesasurething for $50,000 but never got to run her because she got injured. Valente decided to breed her. But after the first two foals combined to go 3 for 53, and with less-than-glowing reports about the size of Bustin Stones, Valente opted to give the mare away to an upstate New York farmer.

After he started breaking Bustin Stones on his Florida farm, Jimmy Crupi called Valente and told him he may have a freak on his hands. Valente's first thought was to get the mare back from the farmer.

"She was out there with pigs, cows, a billy goat; she was the only horse out there," Valente said. "I said, 'Is that her?' I didn't even recognize her. I offered to buy the horse back from him and he sold her to me."

Valente said he purchased Shesasurething back for $2,000. When Bustin Stones suffered a knee injury just prior to his first start in the summer of his 2-year-old season, Valente grew frustrated and again decided to give the mare back to the farmer.

On March 24, 2007, Bustin Stones finally made it to the races. Though Levine did not believe he had the horse 100 percent fit, Bustin Stones won by seven lengths. Before Levine got to the winner's circle, he called Valente and told him to get the mare back.

"'You're not going to get her back for the same price,'" Valente recalled the farmer saying. "I'm thinking, 'I'm going to get killed in this deal.'"

The farmer charged Valente $2,500. Shesasurething now has a weanling by Hook and Ladder, and she's in foal to Empire Maker.

Meanwhile, Bustin Stones went on to win two more races before again suffering a knee injury just prior to the Grade 2 Woody Stephens early last summer. For the second time in his career, Bustin Stones had to undergo knee surgery.

He made it back to the races in January at Aqueduct, and though Levine didn't think he had him fit enough to win, Bustin Stones did just that, taking the race by 1 1/2 lengths. A month later, Bustin Stones shipped to Maryland to win the Grade 2 General George at Laurel Park.

His best moment came on April 5 at Aqueduct when Bustin Stones withstood pace pressure from Executive Fleet to win the Grade 1 Carter Handicap by a half-length. It was the first Grade 1 victory for Valente and Levine.

"To me it was the biggest thrill that I've ever experienced, especially for this horse to overcome what he has overcome," Valente said. "It was so beneficial to me that it was Bruce's first Grade 1; I've been with him so long. It was very rewarding to win it with Bruce."

Following the Carter, Bustin Stones was being pointed for the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap, but got sick a few weeks before the race and missed some training time. He has been breezing steadily since mid-June, and Valente said the horse "looks better than he's ever looked."

Even with the defection of Fabulous Strike from the race, the Vanderbilt is definitely shaping up to be the toughest race Bustin Stones has run in.

"He's never had an easy race," Valente said. "If you look at his [half-mile splits], they're always at his throat. I think he thrives on it, I honestly do."

Valente said he and 40 of his friends and family took an Amtrak train to Aqueduct for the Carter. He expects to have about the same amount of people, if not more, here at Saratoga.

"It's going to be crazy," Valente said.