10/07/2008 11:00PM

Grand time for Great Friends


ARCADIA, Calif. - Doug O'Neill was asked what Merv Griffin expected when he bought Mr. Chairman privately in October 2006.

"A Cal Cup Classic winner, of course," O'Neill replied, although he smiled as he said it, acknowledging a slight exaggeration.

As it turned out, O'Neill and Griffin got it right, although a whole lot had to happen before last Sunday's running of the $250,000 event before Mr. Chairman could be called a Cal Cup Classic winner.

First, Mr. Chairman had to break an ankle and undergo surgery, after which he was sent to his new owner's luxurious Merv Griffin Ranch in La Quinta, near Palm Springs, for recovery and rehabilitation. In August 2007, Griffin died, and his estate undertook the task of dispersing his Thoroughbred assets. Mr. Chairman, still in rehab, was among them.

Cut to San Diego, where an enthusiastic bunch of sports personalities and local business notables were in the midst of their first season as the Great Friends Stable. The managing partner was sports talk show host Scott Kaplan, a mainstay alongside former NFL player Billy Ray Smith on XX 1090 sports radio. The station is the flagship of the San Diego Padres radio world, but Kaplan, a passionate racing fan, lets racing leak into just about every conversation.

Kaplan was getting his horse-wise advice from Craig Dado, Del Mar's vice president of marketing.

"After a few years coming to Del Mar and loving it, Scott wanted to take things to the next level and be an owner," Dado said Wednesday, still savoring the buzz of Mr. Chairman's victory.

"He liked the idea of a syndicate, so I told him, 'If you raise the money, I'll help you run it,' " Dado went on. "He raised 300 grand, and we made it clear in the paperwork going in that the No. 1 objective was not to make money. The No. 1 objective was to run and hopefully win at Del Mar."

In 2007, Great Friends and its 20 or so partners won exactly one race. For 2008 they hired O'Neill as their trainer and John Lies, simulcast host and Lone Star Park announcer, as an adviser.

"John had been helping us at the end of year one," Dado said. "And I hate to say this, but he strongly recommended that we put a claim in on a horse he saw run at Lone Star named Dearest Trickski. It didn't work out."

It did for owner Tom Mankiewicz, who dropped in the claim. Since then, Dearest Trickski has gone on to win nearly $350,000, and she ranks among the prime contenders for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Oct. 24. For Great Friends, she will always be the one who got away.

Mr. Chairman isn't exactly chopped liver, though, and his evolution as a stakes horse - even at the Cal-bred level - should not have come as a surprise. Upon his return from ankle surgery, after 18 months on the sidelines, Mr. Chairman won a small allowance race at Bay Meadows last April.

"I had literally forgotten about him," O'Neill said. "That's how good they take care of horses at Merv's ranch. When I got a call that he was ready to come back in, it was a pleasant surprise."

Soon after that, O'Neill hooked up Great Friends with the Griffin estate.

"Right after we bought him, like two days, he ran in a nonwinners-of-one Cal-bred race," Dado continued. "He won, and he almost paid for himself right there. The plan from there was to probably put him in a $50,000 claimer, hope to win at Del Mar, and move on."

O'Neill suggested otherwise. Mr. Chairman was kept away from claimers, running in a pair of allowance races at Del Mar and coming back with second-place finishes. Great Friends was having a grand time at Del Mar, just hitting the board. Then came Pacific Classic Day, Aug. 24.

"It was the first race, a mile and three-eighths on the grass, and with the inflated purses that day he was running for $97,000," Dado recalled.

Dado, who ran the marketing department at Santa Anita before going to Del Mar, is not a syndicate investor. As far as he is concerned, though, the publicity cranked out by Kaplan and Smith - for Del Mar specifically and racing in general - makes it all worthwhile.

"Not only is it good for Del Mar, it's fun to run a stable with other people's money, and pretend you're a big horse owner," Dado said.

On the home page of "The Scott & BR Show" website, the video window plays a continuous loop of that day at Del Mar, when Mr. Chairman won by a half-length. He repeated pretty much that same effort next time out in the Cal Cup Classic to beat the stakes-winning filly Romance Is Diane by a head.

"We had about 50 people there from San Diego," Dado said of the Cal Cup. "After the race, I did get a number of investors saying, 'We're going to the Breeders' Cup, right?' The race we'd look at if we ever did think about it would be that Marathon. I don't think a mile and a half would be a problem. Right now, though, it would just be over his head. And there's always the Sunshine Millions to think about."

What a great problem to have.