08/09/2005 12:00AM

A global vision for Kitten's Joy

Kitten's Joy, with owners Sarah and Ken Ramsey, will face an all-star cast in Saturday's Arlington Million.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - In May of 2001, at the Ramsey Farm in central Kentucky, an enormous 155-pound foal was extracted via cesarean section from a mare named Kitten's First. The typical Thoroughbred foal weighs in somewhere around 120. But every season, Kitten's First produced the biggest foals at Ramsey Farm. They caused delivery problems, and it was deemed prudent to have planned C-sections, a rarity in the horse world.

The foal, Kitten's Joy, turned out fine. He and his dam were stabled in one of two mare-and-foal barns at the Ramsey Farm, and turned out into one of several fields holding broodmares and their young. Later in the year, they went through that annual week of chaos known as weaning, and Kitten's Joy was grouped with other sprouting youngsters.

"He was a big, tall, leggy foal," recalled Ramsey Farm manager Mark Partridge.

But nothing special. Owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey break their homebred yearlings in Kentucky before sending them on to Florida for finishing school, the last stop before a racing life. The Kitten's First 2001 model was backward.

"The quirk is this mare throws horses that, when you're breaking them, every single one likes to buck," Partridge said. "They'll buck the riders off for five or six weeks, and we've got good riders here, too. He was a little high-strung, spooky, wouldn't behave himself. Instead of sending him to pre-training, we sent him to a woman in Florida named Kitty Cheeks. She just trail-rode him, did figure eights, putting some respect in him. We never had the chance to see anything about how good he was."

He's pretty good. Some might even call Kitten's Joy the best horse in the U.S. He was turf champion last year at age 3 and came back from offseason knee surgery with a quicksilver win in the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs last month. Saturday at Arlington, facing an all-star international cast, the overgrown baby makes the first major stop in what his connections hope will become a magical season.

Kitten's Joy's faults as a yearling vanished when he matured. In fact, his trainer, Dale Romans, said one of Kitten's Joy's strong suits now is his calm, professional, intelligent behavior. But Kitten's Joy still doesn't radiate superstar qualities, the way some of the very best horses seem to.

"He's just a plain-looking chestnut horse, probably 16 [hands] 2," said Romans, who turns 39 this Sunday. "If you knew what made him so good, you could go out and buy one every day."

Kitten's Joy has made 11 grass starts and finished first in nine of them. He won the Secretariat on Million Day last year with a faster 1 1/4-mile time than Powerscourt clocked finishing first in the Arlington Million, and next time out crushed older horses in the Turf Classic at Belmont. But he ended his season with a disappointing second to Better Talk Now as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

"Take nothing away from Better Talk Now, but it was a strangely run race, and we took the worst of it," Romans said.

No one could have been more disappointed than Ken Ramsey, one of racing's foremost owners, but this was not Ramsey's first setback with the horse. When Kitten's Joy began blossoming early in his 3-year-old season, Ramsey, naturally, started thinking big.

"We were primarily trying to get a Derby horse," said Ramsey, 69. "Jerry Bailey kind of burst our bubble on that. I had him come up to Palm Meadows [training center] and work him, and he said he didn't quite work as well on dirt. He recommended to keep him on turf."

Romans might have known this since he'd worked Kitten's Joy on turf at Saratoga during the summer of his 2-year-old season.

"It was like day and night," Romans said. "He was a decent horse working on dirt, but he immediately had a longer stride on turf, and was galloping out better. He just looks happier."

Part of keeping Ramsey happy might involve letting him dream. Ramsey, self-made and hyper-successful, wants to conquer everything he encounters. If he has a good 3-year-old, he thinks Derby. If he has a good grass horse, he wants to have the best grass horse in the world. And that's what Ramsey is out to prove with Kitten's Joy. Barring the unexpected, Ramsey said he intends to send Kitten's Joy to Paris not long after the Million. There, Kitten's Joy will be readied for the Arc de Triomphe, the most prestigious 1 1/2-mile grass race in Europe.

Ramsey doesn't dream vague dreams; he flies into action. A native of Eastern Kentucky, Ramsey has a serious Appalachian twang, and his ceaseless win-at-all-costs focus has put off some racing people. But Ramsey is sharp as a tack. He ticks off foaling dates, race records, any minutiae related to his horses like a man with a photographic memory. He has computed exactly how much purse money it would be worth if, this winter, Kitten's Joy could win the Japan Cup, and Roses in May, another Ramsey star, could win the Japan Cup Dirt.

He has spoken with trainer Patrick Biancone, a two-time Arc winner, about the best way to get a horse to the Arc, and Ramsey is weighing the benefits of a small stakes prep two weeks before the race. Already, he has arranged with French racing officials to stable and train Kitten's Joy at the Longchamp course in the weeks preceding the Arc.

Such intense, hands-on interest would drive some trainers mad, but Romans, a laid-back Kentuckian, seems fine with it.

"He's also realistic about things, and he doesn't come up with things that he can't make work," Romans said. "If I think there's something we can't do, we sit down and talk about it, and he'll listen."

Ramsey listened Monday, when he was keen to claim a horse for $20,000 out of a race at Saratoga, and Romans said pass. That's Ramsey. Though he has some of the best horses in the country, he's still plotting mid-level claims.

"I like a lot of action, and I'm passionate about the game," Ramsey said.

A horse coming back from knee surgery always merits skepticism, and Kitten's Joy got a late start to his 2005 campaign when Romans's horses were quarantined after an outbreak of strangles. But Kitten's Joy silenced doubters in the Firecracker, crackling through a final quarter-mile in just over 22 seconds. A win in the Million would seal Kitten's Joy's spot atop the national turf division and propel him onto the international stage.

"One of my greatest pleasures in life is doing something nobody else has done," said Ramsey.

Kitten's Joy, once the gawky baby, might be the horse to do it.