08/23/2011 11:40AM

Del Mar: Tres Borrachos the latest gambit for owner

Benoit & Associates
Tres Borrachos, with Rafael Bejarano aboard, wins the San Diego Handicap.

DEL MAR, Calif. – It didn’t seem like the most sensible proposition, even for a risk-taker.

When horse owner George Hicker learned last month that the 6-year-old gelding Tres Borrachos was available for private purchase, his interest was piqued. Granted, Tres Borrachos had not won a stakes in three years, had not won a race in two years, and had started only once this year. But the deal had intangibles that swayed Hicker – the time of year and the endorsement of his trainer, Marty Jones.

“I had no reason not to try,” he said. “Marty and I talked. We were coming to Del Mar. That was part of it.”

What has followed since the purchase is something that Hicker could have hardly envisioned. Acquired for an undisclosed sum in July, Tres Borrachos won his debut for Hicker in the $200,000 San Diego Handicap on July 30, justifying a start in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sunday.

Hicker, 65, has acquired a gelding who seems quite different from the Tres Borrachos of the last two years. A winner of 4 of 31 starts and $760,257, Tres Borrachos was ninth behind Big Brown in the 2008 Preakness Stakes, won the Grade 2 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park in July 2008 and won an optional claimer at Hollywood Park in May 2009. He then lost 13 consecutive races before the 8-1 upset win in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap.

The difference, Hicker says, was that Jones reversed Tres Borrachos’s running style. Tres Borrachos had raced near the front for much of his career, and the 39-year-old Jones has taught the gelding to come from off the pace.

“We had concerns that he’d run twice at Del Mar and had lost both times, but that was when he was on the lead,” Hicker said. “I had confidence in trusting Marty Jones’s opinion.”

The Pacific Classic, which will be Tres Borrachos’s 22nd stakes appearance, is run over 1 1/4 miles and is expected to include Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude and Californian Stakes winner Twirling Candy.

Tres Borrachos was previously trained and part-owned by Beau Greely, 40, a close friend of Jones’s who underwent hip replacement surgery earlier this year and is not training. Greely told Jones the gelding was on the market, Jones told Hicker, and Hicker made an offer.

“He’s a 6-year-old gelding,” Greely said. “It was hard to refuse.”

Greely plans to resume training this fall, but Tres Borrachos will stay with Jones. Tres Borrachos gives Greely a rooting interest in the Pacific Classic, a race he won in 2005 with Borrego.“The way he ran the other day was very impressive,” Greely said. “I guess the question is whether he wants to go that far. He’s a fresh horse. I think he would have a good shot. I’m hoping he wins it.”Hicker has owned such horses as Cherokee Heaven, the winner of the 2010 Impressive Luck Handicap at Santa Anita, and Black Monday, the winner of the 1991 Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park. Sharekann, trained by Jones, won the 2007 Solana Beach Handicap at Del Mar for Hicker.

Racing is only the latest, and most passionate, sporting or entertainment endeavor that Hicker has pursued. A college basketball player at Syracuse in the mid-1960’s, alongside Detroit mayor Dave Bing and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, Hicker tried out for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks but did not make the team.

“I was vying for roster spots with John Havlicek and Jerry Sloan,” he recalled on a recent morning at Jones’s barn. “I had an idea I would need a new occupation.”

Hicker stuck with basketball briefly with a traveling team through Puerto Rico, Iceland, the former Yugoslavia, and Italy before deciding to return to the United States. After working for a year with NBC TV, Hicker spent several years in music management, with such bands as Sly and the Family Stone, Rick James, B.B. King, and the country star Eddie Arnold. The inner workings of that industry did not strike his fancy.

“We were on the precipice of doing really well, but it’s a bad business,” he said. “We finished a tour with B.B. King and Rick James and I quit. Some people that were older than me said, ‘Why don’t you take real estate classes?’ ”

Hicker spent more than a decade with the real estate firm Grubb and Ellis before launching his own company, Cardinal Industries, in 1985, named after his favorite St. Louis baseball team. Hicker’s company provides industrial real estate for companies with distribution warehouses, such as Pepsi and Nestle. He remains close to basketball friends. Some of his real estate investors include retired Lakers coach Phil Jackson, and his longtime assistant Frank Hamblen.

Sunday’s Pacific Classic could be a milestone win for Hicker, his richest prize in racing since he first had horses in the 1980’s with Marty Jones’s father, the retired trainer Gary Jones.

“We don’t know if he’s good enough,” Hicker said of Tres Borrachos. “It’s a longshot, but we know he likes the track.”

For Hicker, who has a background in sports, music promotion, and real estate, a start in the Pacific Classic is his latest bold venture.