12/12/2003 12:00AM

Closing in on Derby, quietly

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Buckram Oak Farm, owned by Mahmoud Fustok, has two early Derby favorites: Eurosilver, trained by Nick Zito, and Silver Wagon, with trainer Ralph Ziadie.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - All is quiet these days at Buckram Oak Farm. As broodmares await their next foaling dates, and weanlings romp in spacious paddocks, farmhands go about their daily routines amid a peacefulness that belies the momentous events that may await the man who makes this massive operation click.

That man is Mahmoud Fustok, who in about four months will resume residency in the most modern of the eight houses on this spectacular tract of land. Fustok will be back to watch his horses run at Keeneland, followed by, he hopes, a shot at winning the race of his dreams: the Kentucky Derby.

Perhaps more than any other owner, Fustok currently rates the best chance at winning the 130th Derby on May 1 at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Buckram Oak is the owner of two of the early Derby favorites: Silver Wagon, winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga in August, and Eurosilver, winner of the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in October.

Just don't expect to get Fustok to say much about it. An intensely private man of 68, Fustok prefers to do his talking through Mohammed Moubarak, a longtime family friend whom Fustok promoted from private trainer to racing manager in January 2002, or through any of the half-dozen public trainers that he employs. Through Moubarak, Fustok declined to be interviewed by Daily Racing Form.

"He is not much of a talker," said Moubarak, 37. "I can tell you, however, that he is very, very excited. This is the position he has wanted to be in for a long, long time."

Fustok, who was born and raised in Lebanon, was the first person of Arab descent to break into the Kentucky breeding scene in a major way. Fustok bought 475 acres of pristine Lexington farmland in 1978, transforming what had been a cattle ranch into Buckram Oak.

Fustok came to America as a young adult and graduated with a petro-chemical engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma in the late 1950's. "He's a 'Boomer Sooner,' " said Hanzly Albina, who, under the direction of his father, farm manager Michael Albina, helps to oversee the day-to-day operations at Buckram Oak. "He always has been deeply enamored with American culture. That is the one thing about Mr. Fustok: He loves America."

Although his family always owned horses, primarily Arabians, Fustok became increasingly fascinated with Thoroughbred racing during his college days. He traveled to Chicago during several summers, ostensibly to continue his studies toward his degree, but also so that he could attend Arlington Park.

After college, he returned to Saudi Arabia, where he began amassing considerable wealth through his business and family ties to the country's ruling family. He eventually began racing in France and England, setting up opulent stables in Chantilly and Newmarket.

Success came quickly, as Buckram Oak, using a roster of several trainers including Michael Albina, won six Group 1 races with two-time French champion Green Forest in 1981-82 and the French 2000 Guineas with In Fijar in 1982. The stable's green-and-red colors also were carried by such standouts as Silver Hawk, Crystal Glitter, and Siberian Express. Indeed, Fustok's upstairs offices at the Lexington farm are filled with photos, plaques, and trophies from those days.

Through it all, however, something was missing. Although he did have some decent American runners in the early 1980's - Star Gallant was eighth in the 1982 Kentucky Derby, and Law Talk finished 19th the following year - the emphasis was on European racing. Fustok's fondness for the American way of life, along with the allure of such major races as the Derby, kept gnawing at him.

It was not until later that he was able to break into American racing in a meaningful way.

Moubarak, also from Lebanon, began working for Fustok in 1988 at Newmarket before migrating in 1992 to south Florida, where he and Fustok set up shop. To this day, Fustok spends most of any given year in Pompano Beach, although he also spends at least a few weeks or more in Saudi Arabia, Lexington, Saratoga, and Washington, where he has diplomatic status as a representative of the Saudi government and maintains an apartment in the famed Watergate complex. He owns a number of diverse businesses, primarily in Saudi Arabia but also in other countries. His major holdings include real estate and oil-related businesses, including a major automobile dealership in Saudi Arabia.

Buckram Oak became a regular player in south Florida and made occasional forays into Kentucky and New York. But because the stable was composed primarily of homebreds whose pedigrees were dominated by horses that excelled on turf, the operation was only moderately successful in America, where most racing is conducted on dirt.

So after 10 years, Fustok decided to take a different tack. He began culling his broodmare band while becoming far more active at yearling and 2-year-old sales.

"For five or six years, the activity at the sales was very little," said Moubarak. "We were getting eight or nine a year. The last two years, we've had 42 or 43 2-year-olds each year," including both sales purchases and homebreds. "It has made a big difference."

Fustok, who works closely with Moubarak at sales in Florida, Kentucky, and New York, refuses to spend what Hanzly Albina calls "crazy money" at sales, preferring to go only as high as $250,000 or so before dropping out of a bidding war. "He doesn't see any upside in spending $1 million for a yearling," said Albina.

For $120,000 at Ocala in February, Fustok bought a gray Florida-bred 2-year-old by the unproven sire Wagon Limit and sent him to trainer Ralph Ziadie at Calder. The colt was Silver Wagon, who would win the Hopeful by four lengths. Fustok and Ziadie hoped to run the colt back in the Champagne, but those efforts were thwarted by a lingering illness.

Silver Wagon was training forwardly for his eagerly awaited return on Saturday in the What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder.

Unlike Silver Wagon, Eurosilver is a homebred, having been sired by Unbridled's Song and produced by the Nijinsky II mare Russian Tango, one of a handful of Fustok's holdover mares.

Eurosilver, trained by Nick Zito, arrived Wednesday at Palm Meadows in south Florida after spending the last 2 1/2 months in Kentucky. The colt was taken out of training because of a bucked shin that was diagnosed shortly after his 4 3/4-length win in the Oct. 4 Breeders' Futurity.

Even if they had remained perfectly healthy, neither Silver Wagon nor Eurosilver were likely to run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, said Moubarak. "Mr. Fustok doesn't believe the Breeders' Cup is the absolute best way to get to the Derby," he said.

Zito said he hopes to bring back Eurosilver in early February and get two or three prep races into the colt before the Kentucky Derby. Zito, a two-time Derby winner with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in 1994, not only will do everything possible to avoid running Eurosilver against Silver Wagon until the Derby, but he also has to avoid conflicts involving Birdstone, the Champagne winner he trains for Marylou Whitney, and The Cliff's Edge, the colt he saddled to win two stakes last month at Churchill for Robert La Penta.

Zito, widely known for his passion for the Derby, said he enjoys working for Fustok because he is "one of the better owners ever to come into racing. I say that because he's a knowledgeable horseman. He's been around horses his whole life, so we're on the same wavelength most of the time. He takes bad news and good news the same, and that's a great quality in an owner.

"One of the things that I've enjoyed with Mr. Fustok is his way of thinking," Zito said. "I love the way he thinks. He's a man who puts lot of preparation into his horses. Obviously they've changed directions the last couple years, and it's worked so far. I think he'll be a force for years to come."

Zito said a key element about Eurosilver and his other Derby contenders "is that it's not like we're hoping for hope. We know, right now, that these horses qualify. Obviously getting to the first Saturday in May, that's a long way from now. You've got the injury factor, the luck factor, the scenario factor. But what we do know is that these horses have already shown that they qualify, and that's a great position to be in."

Besides Ziadie and Zito, Buckram Oak employs four other trainers: Pat Byrne, Ken McPeek, Carl Nafzger, and George Mikhalides. "Mohammed puts a lot of thought into which horses go to which trainers," Hanzly Albina said. "He believes there are certain horses that fit with certain trainers."

For example, Zito's proven success with Derby horses led Moubarak to give him precocious, well-bred types who are likely to withstand the rigors of the Derby trail. Conversely, Byrne typically shows great patience with young horses. "Pat is good at letting a horse develop at its own pace," said Albina. "He's getting the kind of horse that will come along a little later."

Clearly, the strategy of putting Moubarak into a role as overseer of a handful of trainers has worked well - Buckram Oak is squarely in the Derby hunt. For Fustok, who has never married and has no children, and who, according to Albina, "wakes up thinking about horses and goes to bed thinking about horses," there is no better way.

"Mr. Fustok has always said that this is his hobby, not his business," said Albina, waving his hand toward a seemingly endless parcel of Buckram Oak land. "He obviously has put a lot of money into this operation, knowing he will lose. All he wants is to be able to enjoy it, and the best way to enjoy it is having a Kentucky Derby contender."

Assuming Eurosilver or Silver Wagon or both make it to Kentucky in April, it will be Moubarak and the trainers who will command the most attention. Fustok, said Moubarak, plans to maintain his usual low profile.

And that's to be expected. All that really matters to Fustok is whether he will be able to realize the dream of a lifetime.

"He wants to win the Kentucky Derby," said Moubarak. "That's it."