06/22/2001 12:00AM

First winner for Illinois Storm


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In the late 1980's, veterinarian Cliff Naretto worked occasionally at Westerly Training Center in Santa Ynez, where many foals by Storm Cat were based.

Storm Cat had yet to become one of the world's leading stallions, so Naretto was involved in gelding many Storm Cat males, breeding prospects lost in an effort to promote a stallion on the racetrack.

"With an unproven stallion, and with Storm Cats being tough, they decided to cut them," Naretto remembers. "You're better off with a nice gelding than an unmanageable colt."

More than 10 years later, Naretto has his own farm, Ponzo Equine Center in Solvang, Calif., and has his own son of Storm Cat - the freshman sire Illinois Storm.

From just a few starters, Illinois Storm is off to a promising start at stud. He was represented by his first stakes winner on June 9 when Georgia's Storm won the Cinderella Stakes at Hollywood Park. She is expected to be favored in the $100,000 Landaluce Stakes on July 7, a Grade 3 over six furlongs that serves as the championship of the 2-year-old filly division at the spring-summer meeting.

Illinois Storm won 3 of 13 races in a three-year career. All three of his wins came at Arlington International, where he was third in the 1995 Honest Pleasure Stakes. At Hawthorne the same year, he was third in the Chief Illiniwek Stakes.

Naretto acquired Illinois Storm after his racing career ended. Illinois Storm's first year at stud was 1998.

"The first year we had a late start," Naretto said. "We bred 18 and 13 got in foal; two of the foals died. The first crop will be the worst crop. If you look at Georgia's Storm, the mare had never produced anything.

"The next year, we bred 21 and then 23. Most importantly, we had some stakes producers. Now that we're in the fourth season, we'll see what happens."

Ponzo Equine Center covers 10 acres in Solvang. Naretto specializes in rehabilitating injured racehorses and lists the multiple stakes winner Thisnearlywasmine as one of his most prominent patients. Thisnearlywasmine was injured winning the 1997 San Miguel Stakes at Santa Anita, but returned to win the Aristides Handicap the following year. "It was a pretty good miracle," Naretto said.

The farm keeps approximately 20 horses on the grounds and stands only Illinois Storm, who is 8. "I'm not considering myself lucky or not lucky," Naretto said. "I still have my feet down. I'm trying to be realistic. The foals that come out look pretty good. Georgia's Storm is running well."

Georgia's Storm is owned by Reinaldo Martinez, and trained by his lifelong friend, Eduardo Inda. She is out of a Fuljan, an 18-year-old mare who won 9 of 23 starts from 1986 to 1989 and was second in the minor Chapman Stakes. Georgia's Storm is her first stakes winner.

Georgia's Storm won her maiden in a two-furlong race at Santa Anita on April 13 and was second to Fertile in the Nursery Stakes over 4 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park on May 19. Without Fertile in the Cinderella Stakes, Georgia's Storm was heavily favored and ran like it, winning the five-furlong race by three lengths.

Inda feels Georgia's Storm will excel in sprints.

"She was very impressive the other day," he said. "I'm kind of surprised. We knew she had a lot of speed when we got her. She might fool me and go seven-eighths, but you don't know until you try it. She doesn't get excited. If you have a nervous filly, you worry about that."

Of course, it will take more than Georgia's Storm to prove Illinois Storm as a sire. With just a few foals racing, and small crops to come, it will be an uphill battle for Naretto, who lists Illinois Storm's fee as private. At the least, he feels Storm Cat will help to promote the young stallion.

"I think there's no doubt he'll be a sire of sires," Naretto said. "He passes on some dominant genes that comes from the female side of Storm Cat."