07/09/2001 12:00AM

Credit genius, not potion for rejuvenation

Email

WASHINGTON - Scott Lake has won more races than any other Thoroughbred trainer in the last two years, and he has scored many of those victories by claiming horses and improving them dramatically. But none of his feats can match the performance by B Flat Major at Delaware Park last Tuesday.

The gelding had failed to finish in the money since October, making five starts and losing them by a combined total of 72 lengths. Yet in the most recent of those races, on May 27, Lake boldly spent $62,500 to claim the 6-year-old. After training him for five weeks, Lake entered him in a stakes race against a solid field.

B Flat Major didn't merely win; he overpowered the competition, leading all the way to win the $55,000 Shecky Greene Handicap by nearly four lengths. It was the kind of form reversal that makes many people in the sport wonder if Lake possesses some magical elixir. In this case, the explanation might be less exotic: Lake knew his horse.

Lake first came into contact with B Flat Major in 1999; one of his owners, Rob Orsanelli, was fond of the consistent runner and kept pestering the trainer to claim him. Lake would reply, "No, he's sore, he's got a lot of problems," and B Flat Major would keep winning. Finally, Lake relented and took B Flat Major for $18,000, then watched with chagrin as the jockey pulled up B Flat Major in mid-race. The injured horse was vanned off the track.

Lake was relieved to learn that the injury was not career-threatening, but when he put B Flat Major back into training, the horse promptly went lame. So Lake sent him to a farm to recuperate, and B Flat Major did not return to competition until eight months after the claim.

When he did, he amply repaid Lake's patience, winning five of six starts, including a stakes race, establishing himself as the star of the stable. "He's got a ton of ability, and he's all heart," Lake said.

Lake planned to run B Flat Major in the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic and gave him a tuneup in a $75,000 claiming race.

But New England-based owner Michael Gill also saw the possibility of winning the Maryland Million, and he took the horse. When Lake learned that his star had been claimed, he said, "I wanted to throw up."

How B Flat Major felt is uncertain, but he did not fare well in his new stable. He finished a distant last in the Maryland Million, the start of a string of poor performances for two of Gill's trainers, Gamaliel Vazquez and Michael Taglianetti. Lake watched the horse before most of his races and recently observed, "I thought he was 150 to 200 pounds underweight. In the paddock, he was moping around. When we had him, he had been like a bull. But he was still sound. He was hitting the ground okay."

When B Flat Major was entered in a Delaware Park claiming race, Lake spent $62,500 to reacquire him - a hefty price considering his dismal recent form. Then he proceeded to employ his favorite method for dealing with old campaigners: doing very little.

Lake believes that battle-scarred veterans thrive on minimal training. So after B Flat Major arrived at Lake's barn at Pimlico Race Course, he didn't have hard workouts or even strenuous gallops; his daily exercise usually consisted of an easy jog. As Lake shuttled among his training operations in three states, he didn't see the horse every day, but his assistant, Tim Hooper, regularly reported that B Flat Major was playful and energetic - just as he had been a year ago.

The horse's progress encouraged Lake to enter the stakes race at Delaware. B Flat Major took the early lead without a challenge, set a moderate pace and drew off to a decisive victory, producing the type of form reversal that bettors have come to expect from Lake's runners.

It is a widespread presumption that Lake (or any trainer) would have to be doing something improper to improve horses so suddenly.

That suggestion has been made in this column many times, but Lake's success with B Flat Major is obviously due to factors besides a magic potion.

The trainer had the patience to wait eight months to let the horse heal before he scored his first string of successes last season. After losing him via claim, he watched the horse for months to judge if he was sound enough to recapture his old form. He had a plan to make the horse physically and mentally sharp again. And then he picked an optimal spot in which to run him.

If Hall of Famers such as Bill Mott or Allen Jerkens had done the same things, the racing world would be extolling their good judgment and superior horsemanship. Perhaps judgment and horsemanship have something to do with Lake's phenomenal success, too.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post