08/28/2003 11:00PM

In early 80's, small breeder rewrote the record books


There's more than just buying and selling going on when it's sales time in Ocala. The sales are often a forum and a way of giving and getting industry news. When a familiar face is conspicuous by its absence, questions get asked. One familiar face that had not been seen for some time was that of Celestino "Charlie" DiLibero. Charlie had a stroke a while back and, consequently, had dropped out of sight.

"I'm okay," he said from his wheelchair at last week's yearling sales. "I'm okay."

In the 1960's and 70's, DiLibero operated a successful racing operation. He bought well-bred and once-promising castoffs from major-league stables, took them to his Suffolk Downs-based stable and revived their fortunes, much as the legendary Tom Smith did for Seabiscuit. Lion Sleeps, one of the top sprinters of the 60's, was a DiLibero rehab, along with Bold Ruler scion L'Aiglon.

In the 1980's, DiLibero shifted his focus to the breeding industry and set out to rewrite the juvenile sire record books with an unlikely stallion prospect: An Eldorado.

Most breeders thought there was no way that An Eldorado, a son of Vaguely Noble, could become a leading juvenile sire. Yet that's exactly what DiLibero plotted, and at the end of 1982, An Eldorado - to the amazement of the industry - had sired 19 winners from his freshman crop. He was on his way to Kentucky as the leading sire of juvenile winners.

The DiLibero magic was not all serendipity. "I gave them every chance to show me what they were," he said of An Eldorado's offspring.

In the old days, Kentucky hardboots used to put their yearlings into a training program as early as June. Then they let them sort themselves out into two groups: early bloomers and late bloomers. Early bloomers went on with their training and would appear in the entries at Keeneland's spring meet. Late bloomers were given time to develop.

DiLibero developed a similar program and would platoon his 2-year-old forces all season long. As the early bloomers won and began to tail off, the late bloomers picked up the momentum.

Having cashed in on An Eldorado, DiLibero reinvested his profits into Lawmaker, another unlikely candidate for leading-sire honors. Lawmaker, a son of Round Table, had raced exclusively on turf in Ireland, and he was going to stand in Florida, where turf opportunities were relatively scarce. Moreover, he had started only six times at 2 and did not race at age 3. His two wins included the Group 3 Railway Stakes in Ireland.

By the mid-1980's the DiLibero band of broodmares numbered more than 100. Lawmaker was put to the task, and in 1984 he sired 55 registered foals in his first crop. Of those, 45 started as 2-year-olds, and 30 of them won for Team DiLibero - a record number of winners for a North American-based stallion. Once again, Charlie DiLibero was the talk of the industry.

The offers to buy Lawmaker began. This time, however, DiLibero was not so eager to sell. "Talk to me later," he would reply.

From Lawmaker's second crop, in 1985, came the graded-stakes-winning filly Leave It Be. She would become the leading get of her sire, winning 24 races, winning or placing in 31 stakes, and earning $788,630 in a 66-race career.

But as far as selling Lawmaker, it turned out that "later" would be too late. DiLibero suffered a severe reversal of fortune in the late 1980's, and Lawmaker ultimately went to the Haras Luisiana in Caracas, Venezuela, for the 1991 season - not to be heard from again.

DiLibero's fortunes recovered somewhat, but the setbacks had taken too much out of him. There was no fire in the belly.

The man who early in life had barely escaped being a casualty of Allied bombing in World War II Italy, who had emigrated to Boston and built a landscaping business, who had an eye for castoff racehorses and rehabilitated them, who went into the breeding game in Florida and accomplished what he had set out to do - that man has never again approached those heights.

"I still have Leave It Be," DiLibero said. "She is getting up there, so I gave her a year off from being a mama. I sold some of her babies for good money; I raced some, too. But she's all I have left, and I am going to keep her and her babies in the family. We both got old together."