03/06/2008 1:00AM

A different kind of campaign


Fresh from their sweeping referendum victories in California's February primary election, political communication consultants David Bienstock and Chuck Winner are now ready to take on the Big Easy with two of the best horses they've ever owned.

That cool red machine Daytona, rolling along on a streak of four straight, should be favored to take Saturday's Mervin Muniz Memorial on the Fair Grounds grass. Then, later in the day, they will be represented by California Derby winner Yankee Bravo in the $600,000 Louisiana Derby, a race that either will put the unbeaten colt in the thick of the Derby picture, or send him home, no hard feelings.

It was tough enough ramming through a 56 percent "yes" vote last February on four ballot measures that approved an increase of 17,000 slots at the casinos of four Southern California Native American tribes. Winner plots strategy and crafts message, while Bienstock makes the media buys to get that message out. As far as Winner could tell, "I think we got maybe the only yes vote on a major ballot measure in the country this time around."

"It was a tough one," Winner noted. "The other side ran a good campaign. They were well-funded. We were not confident until the last four or five days before the election."

A large portion of the "no" vote's backing came from Stockbridge Capital Partners, the real estate investment company that owns Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park. The other major racetrack managements quietly sided with the four tribes, convinced that their good will would at some point benefit horse racing.

Winner, a lifelong racing fan and veteran owner, has worked behind the scenes to forge a mutually beneficial relationship between horse racing and casino-rich tribes in a number of states. But compared to the challenge facing Yankee Bravo, the ballot measures were a piece of cake. This time, instead of battling the deep pockets opposed to the casino compacts, Winner, Bienstock, and their partners will be up against Steve Asmussen, Bill Mott, and Barclay Tagg, all of them well-funded and armed to the teeth with Kentucky Derby contenders.

"I was just talking to somebody who just got off the phone with Asmussen," said Winner, who has been known to network. "He was saying he thinks Pyro is as good as any horse he's ever had. He's had Curlin, right?"

Pyro finished faster than a falling safe to win the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds last month, which makes him solidly favored Saturday. Mott is unwrapping his 2007 Hopeful Stakes winner, Majestic Warrior, and Tagg is countering with Tale of Ekati, winner of the 2007 Futurity at Belmont. After winning two ungraded California events this winter, Yankee Bravo is being thrown into what can only be called the deep end.

"Better to find out what we have now than later," reasoned Bienstock.

At issue is not only the class of the field, but also the ground. Originally sold for just $17,000, Yankee Bravo's three wins have come over British grass at Redcar, California grass at Santa Anita, and Tapeta synthetics at Golden Gate Fields. Alex Solis was aboard for both U.S. starts.

"We need to find out if he can handle dirt," Winner said. "In Alex's judgement, we have to see how he does when it kicks up at him. Synthetic is just not the same. Also, the timing of Louisiana is good, and there's that long stretch at the Fair Grounds."

That last point would seem moot. Those who have seen Yankee Bravo in action will testify that he uses very little of any stretch for his diabolical closing kick. It was his knockout punch that got bloodstock agent Richard Duggan out of his comfortable chair last September after watching the colt's maiden win over five furlongs at Redcar via satellite.

Duggan has made a career of finding nuggets like Yankee Bravo below the radar in the British Isles. His greatest score was In Excess, winner of major American races on turf and dirt and a contender for 1991 Horse of the Year. More recently, Duggan can be proud of Medici Code, winner of the Del Mar Derby and second to Daytona in the Hollywood Derby.

"It didn't look like he was going to get anything at the eighth pole," Duggan said of that first Yankee Bravo sighting. "The next thing you know, he's won in hand, by six. The problem, though, is when they do that it's pretty hard to judge how good they are. You don't know what they beat, but you love the way they did it."

What he saw was good enough, Duggan figured, to be worth the gamble. He formed a partnership with Winner, Bienstock, and the Canadian owner-breeder Richard Bonnycastle, who races as Harlequin Ranches, then turned the colt over to Patrick Gallagher in California.

Now comes the big leap. The Louisiana Derby is run at the same 1 1/16 miles as the California Derby, but at a considerably higher altitude. Winner, who likes to cover all possible bases in any campaign, finds himself in a race without a tracking poll.

"We'll just have to see," he conceded. "I don't ride the horse. And not only that, he doesn't even listen to me."