10/09/2002 11:00PM

A good reason to put retirement plans on hold


MIAMI - Tommy Heard Jr. won his first race in 1938 and has trained at least one stakes winner in eight consecutive decades. But until Lawbook came along to capture the Dr. Fager and Affirmed stakes this summer, the 84-year-old Texan not only had never won a Florida Stallion Stakes, but he also had never had a horse finish better than eighth in the 20-year history of the series.

Now Lawbook is on the verge of sweeping the three-race series in Saturday's $400,000 In Reality Stakes at Calder. If Lawbook is successful, he will join a select group of four other horses to pull off the sweep: Smile (1984); Naked Greed (1991); Seacliff (1995); and Express Tour (2000).

Heard learned the business at an early age on his father's ranch in Refugio, Texas. "I was riding horses by the time I was 5 years old," he said.

He became a journalism major at the University of Texas but after spending a couple of summers working for his father at Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Heard was convinced the racetrack was where he wanted to be.

"Other than spending some time in the service during World War II, I've never been away from racing ever since those summers in New England," said Heard.

Heard saddled his first stakes winner in 1938 when Be Blue captured the $5,000 Commonwealth Handicap at Suffolk Downs. Several years later he purchased a horse named Boysy for $100 from Colonel E.R. Bradley.

"I brought Boysy to Arlington Park as a 5-year-old maiden and ran him for a $1,500 claiming tag." Heard said. "He won by a pole and paid over $100. He eventually went on to earn $125,000, which was a lot of money in those days."

Heard trained a large public stable for the next several decades while continuing to win stakes races with regularity in New England, New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. At one time he trained for as many as 22 different owners, but he ultimately decided that training a public stable wasn't for him.

"I was awakened by a phone call around midnight one night and this guy asks me how his horse trained that day," said Heard. "I said, 'Who the hell are you?' That's when I decided to get rid of all my owners. My stomach just couldn't take it anymore."

Heard spent three summers during the mid-1970's racing in Southern California with horses he purchased in south Florida. One of those was Big Band, with whom he won the 1975 Los Angeles Handicap at Hollywood Park.

"I took one of the toughest beats of my career with Big Band that same year," said Heard. "Got beat by Ancient Title and Laffit Pincay Jr. in the Hollywood Gold Cup. The placing judges must have looked at that photo for 10 minutes before finally hanging the numbers up."

Heard became a regular on the south Florida circuit in the 1980's, continuing to purchase most of his stock either privately or at the sales.

"I'm not much for claiming horses," said Heard. "You only get somebody else's problems when you do that. And I never really got into the breeding business either. That's a speciality. A whole different ballgame."

Heard's big horse in the 1990's was Built for Pleasure, a gray son of Homebuilder who paid $220 to win after upsetting Unbridled's Song and Victory Speech in the 1996 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Illness and injury more or less ended the colt's career after a last-place finish in the 1996 Kentucky Derby.

Built for Pleasure's Fountain of Youth victory gave Heard at least one stakes winner in seven consecutive decades, equaling a feat accomplished by the great Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. Heard surpassed Fitzsimmons last August with Lawbook's victory in the Dr. Fager.

"All that record means is that I outlived Sunny Jim," Heard said with a smile. "I was winning $25,000 stakes over those years. He was winning Kentucky Derbies."

Heard, who gets around with the energy and vigor of a man nearly half his age, purchased Lawbook for $50,000 as a yearling during the fall of 2001. A compact but athletic colt, Lawbook, a son of Notebook, needed seven tries to finally win his maiden.

"He got knocked down or stopped with no place to go in most of his early races," said Heard. "But he really wants to go farther. I'm not sure how far he'll eventually get, but I know he'll go a mile and a sixteenth, and that's all that matters on Saturday."

Lawbook is eligible for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but Heard said he isn't planning on trying his horse at that level just yet.

"The Breeders' Cup comes up in only two weeks, and I think that would mean asking him to move up with some really good horses too fast," said Heard. "If he should jump up and win this race hands down, I might think about it, but I'm not counting on that happening. I'm just sweating this one out for now. When it's over, then I'll sit down and figure out what do do with him next."

Heard, who will turn 85 on Thursday, still spends five or six mornings a week at the barn overseeing his stable of 11 horses.

"The game has changed an awful lot over the years," said Heard. "Used to be you'd ship from track to track and it was like going to a small town. You'd know almost everybody wherever you went. Now the game has gotten so big and so spread out you hardly know anyone any more."

Heard does not plan on retiring in the near future.

"Fortunately I've been blessed with good health my whole life," said Heard. "And I feel if you're not sick and have been active all your life, the worst thing in the world is to all of a sudden just turn it off and stop being active. It's not good for you."

Besides, Heard has a lot to look forward to next year - Lawbook's 3-year-old season.