12/27/2002 1:00AM

Horse with Picasso nose proves a master


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Runto the Mountain is one of the thousands of horses who never gets a headline. He is, however, a racehorse with a capital R. Runto the Mountain is such a hard-trying horse that he has won 20 races and nearly $150,000. The amazing thing about his story is that veterinarians and other experts didn't believe he would be able to race, much less compete successfully. But Runto the Mountain's good attitude and competitive spirit have made believers of everyone who has handled him.

Bred in Kentucky by Carl Icahn's Foxfield, Runto the Mountain, by Crafty Prospector, was a colt who should have had very good prospects. But, he was born with a wry nose, an affliction that causes the nose to curve sharply to one side, twisting the muzzle and shutting off the air flow in one nostril.

"Runto the Mountain was a beautiful, typey, well-balanced, and athletic horse typical of Crafty Prospector, with an intelligent demeanor," said Rob Whiteley, director of operations for Foxfield. "Like so many Crafty Prospectors, he looked like he could be any kind of racehorse. But with a wry nose, he wasn't a sales candidate."

Lack of a commercial option kept Foxfield from using the horse. "Thinking that he had zero chance to be a racehorse because of the totally closed airway on one side, we gave him to Bill Kain of Southern Way Farm, who was just getting started," said Whitely. "I knew he would give the horse a good home. But I thought the horse's future was as a companion horse."

Instead, the handsome colt with the bent nose surprised everyone and became a very solid racehorse.

Runto the Mountain was bred to be a really good horse. He is by Crafty Prospector, a very good and consistent Mr. Prospector stallion, and is out of stakes producer Tipsy Girl, a daughter of Raise a Cup and a multiple stakes winner of $285,817.

Kain recalled that Runto the Mountain "was as well put together as anything that mare has produced. He was so strong he looked like an early 2-year-old; he just had that bent nose, which had a substantial curve to his left. It was a Picasso kind of thing; otherwise he was a grand animal. So, I worked with him, lunging him, and he wasn't making any noise.

"Getting a colt like that, by a $35,000 sire, was something I couldn't have afforded any other way. He just had so much quality. I thought, if he can just get over it, there's no telling what he could do.

"He was galloping a couple of miles before we contacted the only trainer we knew," Kain said.

Runto the Mountain passed a veterinary exam to the satisfaction of trainer Ken Crowe, and Crowe agreed to buy the colt for $3,000, with Kain getting 30 percent of Runto the Mountain's first three winning purses. "The next thing you know, the colt's doing fantastic," Kain said.

The colt with no potential suddenly seemed to have surprising promise. Kain said, "We went from being encouraged that he could do what was asked of him [in getting to the races] to thinking that he would be like every other Crafty Prospector, overcoming any obstacle in his way, and maybe he could be an allowance horse."

In fact, Runto the Mountain was doing so well that Crowe threw him in over his head. Against the likes of future graded stakes winners Da Devil, Dice Dancer, and Polished Brass, Runto the Mountain ran unplaced in his two starts at 2.

And then all the high hopes for Runto the Mountain were seemingly dashed when he got EPM - a viral infection that affects a horse's motor coordination - in the summer of his juvenile season and was out of racing for nearly a year.

Runto the Mountain came back and raced for Crowe at 3 and 4, winning four times. Then Runto the Mountain was claimed for $4,000 in late November 1999.

It might have been the luckiest day of the colt's life.

Claimed by trainer Jerry Balo for his own account, Runto the Mountain made a couple more starts in 1999, then Balo laid him off until February. When Runto the Mountain returned to racing in 2000, he was a changed horse.

Runto the Mountain won his first four starts in 2000, at one point winning 8 of 11, with nothing worse than a third-place finish. The past three years, Balo has kept the horse racing shorter distances, with Runto the Mountain typically taking the lead early and then holding off horses in the stretch.

"When I claimed him, he was always a sort of stiff-going horse," said Balo. "But I treated him for muscle soreness, and he got to running."

That is an understatement. During the past three years, Runto the Mountain has won 16 races for Balo.

"He doesn't take a lot of training," said Balo. "Doesn't take any equipment at all, no bandages, no tongue-tie, just a bridle. I love the old horse; he's no problem at all. He seems to run better with a little time between his races, maybe."

From 65 starts, the 7-year-old Runto the Mountain has won 20 races and earned $146,378. In the future, Balo is "thinking about breeding Runto the Mountain to some mares. There've been a few people who want to breed to him. And I'd probably just stand him at Balo Farm" in Ohio.

As difficult as it is to succeed in breeding, those who have handled this horse warn against counting him out. "This horse could have been anything," said Kain. "They say you can't do anything if you can't breathe, but this guy could. He struggled through and triumphed, even though he wasn't perfect."

Just like the little blue engine who chugged over the mountain saying, "I think I can, I think I can," Runto the Mountain, with heart and determination, continues to get the job done.