11/06/2003 1:00AM

Free House's progeny start to bloom


ARCADIA, Calif. - Free House was considered an overachiever as he rose to the top of California racing in the late 1990's. When he went to stud in 2000, the outlook had changed: The horse who hailed from modest bloodlines finished his career with eight stakes wins and earnings of $3.1 million, leading to high expectations for his stud career.

The impact of Free House on the sport will not be known for years, but his owner-breeders - Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan - are optimistic that he can have a lasting influence on breeding and racing.

So far, the statistics support their hopes.

Through Tuesday, Free House was the top-ranked freshman stallion in California, with progeny earnings in excess of $200,000.

On Saturday, Free House could have his first winner of a six-figure stakes when House of Fortune starts in the $125,000 California Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita.

Free House has not achieved his top ranking in the typical fashion for a California stallion.

Instead of producing precocious 2-year-olds who dominated sprint races at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, Free House's limited foals seem to be later-developing horses who want to run in longer sprints or around two turns.

House of Fortune won the seven-furlong Cover Gal Stakes on Oct. 1 for owner Arnold Zetcher and trainer Ron McAnally, giving Free House his first stakes win as a stallion. The Juvenile Fillies ran at 1 1/16 miles.

"It doesn't surprise me that they are later starters," McCaffery said. "They are tall and a little gawky. That doesn't worry me, because that's the way he is.

"Even McAnally's filly, she's a tall, lanky thing. I'm pleased that the majority of them did not start early.

"They're coming," McCaffery said. "Just wait, people. How many horses do you see start in those four-furlong races and how many are running now? They're not mentally and physically capable. People look at the Free Houses and say they are not going to be early."

In a four-year span in the late 1990's, Free House was a mainstay in California racing, winning major races annually from age 2 to 5 under the training of Paco Gonzalez. By Smokester, whom McCaffery and Toffan campaigned, Free House is out of Fountain Lake, a daughter of Vigors who was a minor stakes winner.

Free House won the Norfolk Stakes at 2, and as a 3-year-old had his best season, winning the 1997 Santa Anita Derby, Swaps Stakes, and San Felipe Stakes, finishing second in the Preakness Stakes, and coming in third in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Haskell Invitational.

He raced in the shadow of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm and Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold, but Free House finished that season with earnings of $1,336,910.

As an older horse, Free House raced primarily in California.

At 4, he had a brief campaign, highlighted by a win in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar. At 5, in 1999, his final year on the track, he won two stakes - the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap and the San Antonio Handicap. He finished second to Real Quiet in the 1999 Pimlico Special.

In 1997 and 1998, Free House was named California-bred horse of the year.

Because of his regional success, Free House was kept in California for his stud career, going to Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, near San Diego.

This year, Free House has had five winners from 59 2-year-olds. Through Tuesday, he ranked 26th on the national freshman stallion list, but his 16 starters are considerably fewer than the number of starters for each of the top three freshman stallions, all of whom stand in Kentucky. Stravinsky has 52 runners; Victory Gallop, 31; and Doneraile Court, 34.

By comparison, Swiss Yodeler led California's freshman stallions in 2002 with earnings of $748,718, finishing seventh on the national list. He had 27 runners.

"When they start running a distance and going two turns, he'll be better there," Toffan said of Free House. "He has brilliant speed but not the speed that Swiss Yodeler or In Excess had. I think they will prefer to run longer."

Free House's first winner was Head of the House, who won a maiden race over 5 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park during the summer. Head of the House was expected to start in sprint stakes at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, but he went out of training with an ankle injury. He is preparing for a return with Gonzalez.

As for future starters, Toffan mentions Santa Patricia, an unraced filly, as an exciting prospect.

McCaffery watched the Cover Gal Stakes in person and was impressed with House of Fortune. She expects her to win the Juvenile Fillies.

"I think she should win," McCaffery said. "She improved so much after her last race at Del Mar. She's in the right hands."

A win by House of Fortune would indicate that Free House's foals will only improve with distance and age. Even though he won a maiden race over six furlongs at Fairplex Park at 2, Free House was best at 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 miles.

"I'm encouraged that people with the babies are taking their time," McCaffery said. "I think they will be better at 3 and 4 and 5 like he was.

"I'm not discouraged so far. I don't need to have 20 2-year-olds in November. It pays off in the long run."