08/25/2004 11:00PM

Grandpa would be mighty proud


DEL MAR, Calif. - If you need something roped, Sam Semkin is your man. He has the trophies, the belt buckles, and the cash prizes to prove it.

Pro roping, though, can only take you so far. Training Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, opens all kinds of doors. Semkin has done both for so long he can choose either without regret, which makes his "overnight" success at the racetrack that much more enjoyable.

Semkin and his filly Souvenir Gift will be on center stage Saturday at Del Mar in the 54th running of the Del Mar Debutante, a Grade 1, seven-furlong test of class that has exposed such fine young animals as Windy's Daughter, Terlingua, Landaluce, Sardula, Chilukki, and Halfbridled at various times in its colorful past.

In Souvenir Gift, Semkin and his partner, Gregory Unruh, have a beautifully balanced daughter of Derby Trial winner Souvenir Copy who has been to the races four times and won three, making her a combat veteran compared to the more lightly raced lilies in the Debutante field.

In Sam Semkin, Souvenir Gift has a 45-year-old trainer with a university degree, a solid reputation as developer of young horses, and a peerless racetrack pedigree. Let's put it this way: If Souvenir Gift wins the Debutante, Semkin still will be two Debutantes behind Grandpa Bob.

That would be the late Robert L. Wheeler, the easygoing Nebraska cowboy who trained major strings for the elite of the East, including three different branches of the Whitney family.

"Mr. Wheeler was a gentleman trainer who accomplished so much for us in a short period of time," wrote Marylou Whitney in a letter urging Wheeler's consideration for the Hall of Fame. "Under his remarkable training, we won many stakes races, collected numerous gold cups in California, observed Bug Brush set a world record, and cheered as Silver Spoon had that amazing victory in the Santa Anita Derby."

Two of those California prizes came in the Del Mar Debutante, with Spark Plug, in 1961, and Brown Berry, in 1962. Both were owned by C.V. Whitney. Wheeler also won the 1955 Debutante with Miss Todd, a daughter of Your Host who was considered by her trainer to be the best 2-year-old filly he ever handled. Coming from Wheeler, that would make Miss Todd among the best 2-year-old fillies anyone has ever handled.

Wheeler died in 1992 at age 72, and not a day goes by without Semkin thinking about his grandfather.

"After all that time I worked for him, I sometimes regret I didn't ask him even more questions than I did," he said. "But then, I figured I got an awful lot from him just from osmosis."

Semkin was at his barn at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, where he worked alongside Wheeler through the mid-1980's. Semkin has trained there on his own since 1987, overseeing the early schooling of runners for such top-drawer clients as B. Wayne Hughes and Ernest Auerbach, while applying the lessons learned from his grandfather.

"He taught me everything I know about breaking babies," Semkin said. "Mostly, I learned not to do too much. His philosophy was that you are doing something unnatural for them, and the last thing you want to do is get them hot and tired, so that it becomes a bad experience for them."

For Semkin, San Luis Rey affords an ideal training environment. It certainly worked for Azeri, who trained there through her championship seasons of 2002 and 2003.

"There are two main reasons," Semkin said. "First, how kind the racetrack is. And the other thing, if you are running horses, getting them back here after the race helps them relax and get over it that much quicker."

In early 2003, Semkin set out to raise his profile by training more horses in his own name. Souvenir Gift, a $25,000 yearling purchase, put him on the map with his first stakes winner last June, and she had the good historical sense to do it in the Cinderella at Hollywood Park. Bob Wheeler won the Cinderella four times between 1955 and 1974.

Midway through training hours Thursday, Souvenir Gift was lolling about in the shade of her outdoor stall, wearing polo bandages and a fly mask, and giving occasional notice to Loretta, the double-wide gray goat who was guarding the stall door.

"She's a good example of what my grandfather was talking about," Semkin said. "She likes her job. Likes it so much, in fact, that she gets a little wound up when she knows she's heading into a race. I wouldn't call it nervous. Just excited, and she should grow out of that.

"That's why I'll wait until Saturday morning to send her over to Del Mar," Semkin said. "I remember how they were hauling Grandpa's horses to the track from here and winning all the time. To this day they still talk about it."

Maybe, by Sunday morning, they'll be talking about the grandson as well.