09/07/2004 11:00PM

Fairmount Park track report


COLLINSVILLE, Ill. - Trainers Jimmy Zook and Ralph Martinez have several things in common. Both have around 100 horses and train exclusively for one owner. But their operations are opposites philosophically, with Martinez and his boss, Lou O'Brien, more concerned with grinding out victories in claiming races than chasing stakes money.

"They have a certain criteria for claiming horses, and they've gotten very good at what they do," says Zook of the Martinez-O'Brien barn.

Zook and his owner, William Stiritz, raise their sights a little higher, and the pride of their barn is Wildwood Royal.

In the $75,000 Dade Turf Classic this past Saturday at Ellis Park, Wildwood Royal nearly went wire to wire in the 1 1/16-mile race, finishing second to May Gator.

A 4-year-old filly, Wildwood Royal has four wins in eight starts this year, including the $122,000 Iowa Distaff at Prairie Meadows on July 3.

Should Wildwood Royal fail to meet her trainer's goal of one day running in a Breeders' Cup race, Zook and Stiritz have high hopes for an unnamed Fusaichi Pegasus yearling. Purchased for $145,000 at a Lexington, Ky., auction, the colt figures to be the barn's best shot at a major derby since Robin Zee finished fourth to War Emblem in the 2002 Illinois Derby.

"He really deserves a good one," Zook said of Stiritz, the former Ralston Purina CEO who bought Fairmount Park from Ogden Corp. in 2000. "He's put a lot of time, energy, and money into it. Horses will help him live a long time."

Zook is hoping the 70-year-old Stiritz, who rides 2-year-old Thoroughbreds daily through the woods on his southern Illinois farm, will see his investment pay off in a big way.