09/04/2008 12:00AM

Darley a winner despite Futurity loss


DEL MAR, Calif. - Fans of the Big Deal had a full plate Wednesday afternoon when the racing titans of Stonerside Farm and Darley Stud commingled to produce a thrilling version of the Del Mar Futurity that mixed equal portions of shrewd economics and entertaining coincidence.

Consider that the Stonerside operation of Houston's Robert and Janice McNair had agreed to sell the bulk of its 280-head breeding and racing operation to Darley, owned by Sheikh Mohammed al-Maktoum, featuring an inventory that included the sparkling Del Mar maiden race winner Midshipman, a son of Unbridled's Song.

Note further that Darley dated the nine-figure deal to be frozen in terms of price as of Sept. 2, the day before Midshipman was scheduled to start in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, even though the colt still would be running in Stonerside's name pending the final close of the sale.

Then stir in the facts on the ground in the Futurity itself, which included a slam-bang stretch run and a head bob at the wire between Midshipman and Coronet of a Baron, a son of Pure Prize who just happened to be owned by Darley Stud. The margin was a nose in Midshipman's favor, which meant that the value of the colt increased exponentially for Darley without adding a nickel to the overall Stonerside price tag.

In addition, the Futurity winner is out of 1998 La Canada Stakes winner Fleet Lady, who won the first race of her career at Del Mar. Fleet Lady now belongs to Darley as well.

The daisy-chain of related threads left Jimmy Bell not quite sure how happy he should be. As president of Darley USA, Bell knew he should have been at least a little disappointed to see Coronet of a Baron edged on the money. But, hey, the winner would be Darley's before too long, and then there was the onrushing third-place finish of Street Hero, a son of Darley stallion Street Cry.

"I guess you could run that a lot of times and not have it come out like that," Bell said.

Three days after Fleet Lady won her debut, back in September 1996, Silver Charm gave Bob Baffert the first of seven straight victories in the Del Mar Futurity. Midshipman makes eight, and two of them have come at the direct expense of Baffert's former assistant Eoin Harty, who trains Coronet of a Baron.

"The first thing I thought of as they came down there together was Flame Thrower and Street Cry," Harty said, referring to the memorable 2000 running of the Futurity. Flame Thrower, running for Baffert, beat Harty's Street Cry by a head.

For his part, Harty seems to be paying dearly for the good fortune of winning that razor-thin Travers photo on Aug. 23 with Colonel John. Since then, he has sent out Well Armed to be second by neck in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 24, longshot Past the Point to be second by just more than a length to Curlin in the Woodward Stakes last Saturday, and now the Futurity squeaker.

"I think I'll live off Past the Point's race for a few more days," Harty said. "Though I suppose now I'll have to be known as Bob's former assistant for another eight years."

Down in Houston, Bob McNair watched the Futurity unfold with juggled emotions. The first call he got when the photo sign lit Midshipman's number was from John Ferguson, one of Darley's chief advisers.

"I told him that Sheikh Mohammed was going to think he was the smartest guy in the world," McNair said. "It's sort of Murphy's Law, though. If you want 'em to win, sell 'em."

McNair, who owns the Houston Texans of the NFL, was planning to gradually downsize his Thoroughbred operation over the next few years, but then shifted gears when Sheikh Mohammed offered to buy the whole enchilada.

"I've really got about three jobs," said McNair, 70. "Running the football team, running Stonerside, and then our business interests, which are substantial. And I run two foundations. When I was 40, I guess I could do that. But now, I just can't run all over the country like I used to. It was time to cut back on some of my responsibilities."

Midshipman is a long, elegant chestnut who fits well with such fine Stonerside runners as champion filly Chilukki, Congaree, Bob and John, Tuzla, Tout Charmant, and Karen's Caper. The McNairs also bred and sold the $6.4 million yearling Van Nistelrooy and were co-breeders of 2000 Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus.

"If I didn't have the football team, we would be continuing Stonerside," McNair noted. "But I've got five million people here in the Houston area who are dependent on me to produce a winner, and everybody feels ownership in the Texans - the guy who parks my car, the clerk in the grocery store, the doctors and nurses when you visit the doctor's office. I just hope we can meet with the same level of success with the football team that we have with racing."

Still, McNair said, it is hard to let go. He was asked if, by chance, Sheikh Mohammed might have been interested in buying the Texans instead.

"No," McNair replied. "But I suppose he might have been if the team had been named the Falcons."