05/01/2008 11:00PM

Cullen returns to top of game

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Brian Cullen's involvement in horse racing dates back almost 40 years. Although he was forced to step away from the game for five years when his wife became ill in 1999, he is once again front and center with Shilla, an early favorite for this year's Woodbine Oaks.

Cullen, 74, played in the National Hockey League as a center for seven years, first for the Toronto Maple Leafs and then for the New York Rangers. He operated the highly successful Victura Farm for decades, racing and breeding a number of high-class runners.

But when his wife of 53 years, Carol, suffered a serious stroke in 1999, Cullen essentially left the business, selling his farm and horses and moving his wife into a small house where he could care for her.

A rehabilitated Carol and her husband are enjoying exciting times with their homebred Shilla, who won her second stakes in as many starts this year in the April 27 Fury Stakes at Woodbine.

During his hockey career, Cullen would often frequent Fort Erie racetrack with his teammates. A chance meeting with trainer Art Warner led Cullen deep into the world of horse ownership.

"We had a great relationship," Cullen said. "He invited me to watch his horses work one morning, and I told him I wanted to buy some yearlings."

With the help of Warner and George Badame, Cullen began purchasing horses at the sales, and it was not long after that he bought a farm.

"I named it Victura Farm after a boat that John F. Kennedy had," he said. "It means 'will to win.'"

The property was located in Pelham, Ontario, near St. Catherines, and was built up to include several barns and paddocks.

For nearly 30 years, Cullen raced horses that he bought or bred or shared ownership in with a friend, Rick Kennedy, who raced 1987 Canadian Horse of the Year Afleet.

Cullen had stakes winners like Crowning Honors, winner of the 1985 Breeders' Stakes, plus Canadian stars such as Lantana Lady, Preemptive Strike, and Madame Treasurer.

"It was like we won stakes every weekend sometimes," said Cullen. "We had a lot of good horses."

But when his wife suffered a stroke, Cullen sold everything except for a couple of runners.

Carol improved dramatically over the course of a few years, and in 2002 a strange twist of fate brought Shilla to the family.

"I had bought a yearling in 1983 that I named Sawmill Lady, after the road our farm was on," Cullen said. "Art told me she was a stone-cold runner and I was excited."

Sawmill Lady never made it on the track, however, as she foundered and had to be retired.

One of Sawmill Lady's daughters, Papoose, was among the horses dispersed by Cullen when he left the game. Cot Campbell, president of Dogwood Stable, bought her as a yearling at auction.

Campbell no longer had the horse, but in 2002, Cullen happened to pick up a copy of the Woodbine mixed sale catalog that fall and there was Papoose.

"Some guy in Alberta had her," Cullen said. "I told my bloodstock agent to go and buy her for me and we got her for $6,500."

Cullen bred Papoose to Deputy Commander in 2003 and the result was allowance winner Shawanaga, who is nearing her 4-year-old debut.

In 2004, he bred her to Marquetry and that resulting foal was Shilla.

Cullen has nine horses in training with Nick Gonzalez, including two that will race for Carol in her own silks.

"She's very excited about seeing her horses run soon, too," said Cullen. "I'm tickled pink to be back in the game."