08/03/2005 11:00PM

Four stakes funded by owner's bucks


COLLINSVILLE, Ill. - Granite City, Ill., is exactly as unglamorous as it sounds. A workaday St. Louis suburb of some 30,000 residents, its most recognizable landmark is a large steel mill whose visible gaseous flames resemble super-sized Bunsen burners in the night sky.

When young Jeff Cooper and John Kabbendjian went looking for respite from their gritty hometown, they most often ended up at Fairmount Park. Shabby by the standards of most horseplayers, the track seemed downright regal to Cooper and Kabbendjian, whose love for the sport would only flourish.

Today, Cooper, 35, owns a southern Illinois law firm where Kabbendjian, 37, works as an investigator. The pair's good fortune has enabled them to own 26 racehorses under their Circle C Stables banner. But, more important to Cooper, he is now able to pay Fairmount back for the childhood memories he still cherishes - to the tune of $105,000 in no-strings-attached purse money that he has put up to fuel four stakes races worth a combined $165,000 at the track Saturday night.

One of the races, the $40,000 Kabbendjian Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, is named in honor of Kabbendjian's father, Pierre, who introduced the lifelong friends to Thoroughbred racing.

"John's really proud that something his dad introduced him to can come back to help the community," said Cooper, who has a horse entered on the undercard but none in the four features. "There's nothing in it for me moneywise. I'd have felt a little goofy putting our horses in to win my own money."

The evening - which, in addition to the one-mile Kabbendjian, includes the $45,000 King Knocker Stakes for 3-year-old males, as well as the $30,000 Donada Farm Handicap and the $50,000 Circle C Classic for older horses - marks Fairmount's most lucrative card of racing since the track stopped running its $150,000 Fairmount Derby in 1995. Cooper said that while he'd like to resuscitate the derby in the future, spreading the cheddar around was imperative to ensure that local horsemen have a shot.

The 1 1/8-mile Circle C Classic will feature a showdown between the Kentucky-based father-son tandem of Bernie and Steve Flint. Steve Flint's entrant, Artemus Sunrise, is favored, and prevailed over his father's Ask the Lord at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill on July 4. But Bernie Flint notes that Ask the Lord was flying at the end - and is the only horse in the field to have won at the distance.

"The horse excels at a mile and an eighth," said the elder Flint. "My horse is 5 for 8, and there's no other horse in the field that has won at that distance. We were running over the top of my son's horse at the end of that last race. I think it's a no-brainer."

A third horse of intrigue is Fairmount owner Bill Stiritz's Wildwood Royal, the only filly entered in the Circle C field. A versatile 5-year-old whose speed figures are at least the equal of those of the the Flint horses, Wildwood Royal has not raced since April 30. While trainer Jimmy Zook says she has been working smartly of late, he's not ruling out the possibility of a late scratch.

"She's been out for a while and has been battling a ligament problem, but she galloped beautifully today," said Zook. "But we're not a go for sure."

In the King Knocker, national wins leader Steve Asmussen will ship Jazzy Gallop in for what is believed to be the Texas trainer's first-ever entry at Fairmount. Jazzy Gallop was considered a Kentucky Derby contender until a fifth-place finish in the Grade 3 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn knocked him off course.

Also in the King Knocker is Killenaule, formerly trained by Todd Pletcher, and Wise Diplomat, who has been in peak form of late for trainer Wayne Catalano and looks to be the value play of the day at anywhere close to his morning-line odds of 6-1.