08/10/2012 3:24PM

Hovdey: Familiar rivals Cambina, Nereid seek breakthrough in Mabee

Shigeki Kikkawa
Nereid and Cambina finish in a dead heat for the win in the 2011 American Oaks at Hollywood Park.

There are any number of ways to analyze the $250,000 John C. Mabee for older fillies and mares on the Del Mar turf course Sunday. One thing is certain, however. At the end of the 1 1/8-miles, wherever they end up in the field of six, Nereid and Cambina will be practically attached at the hip.

Their attraction began 13 months ago at Hollywood Park in the American Oaks. The 1 1/4 miles over the Hollywood Park grass came down to four fillies on the line, with Nereid and Cambina in a dead heat for the win.

(Heaters happen, but not so often in Grade 1 events. In recent history, the most notable were the 2003 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita, shared by Johar and High Chaparral, and the 1990 Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park between Richard Mandella stablemates Reluctant Guest and Beautiful Melody).

One month later, they met again in the shorter Del Mar Oaks – Nereid was third and Cabina was fourth – after which they went their separate ways. Nereid tried the Queen Elizabeth II Cup at Keeneland and finished third, then went to the sidelines. Cambina stepped up to face older females in the Yellow Ribbon and was fifth, then ran eighth, beaten less than three lengths, in the clustered finish of the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs to end her year.

Lurch forward to last May. There they were again, in the Gamely at Hollywood Park, dogging each other while chasing division leader Belle Royale. Cambina got the edge by a half-length over Nereid, never mind that they were fifth and sixth, about three lengths behind the winner.

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The fact remains that in 13 starts between them, these two obviously talented fillies have not won a race since their shared heroics in the American Oaks. Nereid, a daughter of Rock Hard Ten, comes into the Mabee off a close fourth in the Royal Heroine Mile on July 7, while Cambina was beaten a scant nose in the Beverly Hills Handicap on June 24. Is it finally time for one of them to break through?

“She’s a trier, that filly,” said trainer Jeff Bonde as Cambina got a bath outside her Del Mar shed row Friday morning. “Right now, she’s at her apex, I think. She just needs to get a little lucky.”

Cambina, an Irish daughter of Hawk Wing, is a reddish chestnut with a single white stocking and a long blaze that curls down over her lip. She shops in the petite section, although to the eye of part owner George Schmitt, the filly has put on a good 50 pounds now that she’s 4 and is only at a disadvantage when it comes to her running style.

“She wants to be covered up and come with a run, and that can be tough to do when they go three-quarters in 1:15,” said Schmitt, which is exactly what happened in Cambina’s near miss in the Beverly Hills.

Schmitt, who races with his wife, Clare, paid $110,000 for Cambina as a 2-year-old. After viewing her races on the Internet, he knew he was buying a little filly, but he was impressed by her relentless finishing kick. He was eager to get her in Bonde’s hands to see what she could do in California. Then she arrived.

“She had a ferry ride to Southhampton, another ferry to Amsterdam, then sat there a day and a half before flying her here,” Schmitt said. “I thought we had a dead horse on our hands when she got off the plane.”

In Bonde’s version, Cambina was “a little on the thin side,” but he’s the kind of old-school trainer who’d refer to Man o’ War as a “good horse” and Marilyn Monroe as “not bad looking.” Understated works just fine for Bonde, 57, who may have the best collection of horses in a training career that began when he was 19.

A lot of that comes down to owners like the Schmitts and their various partners. Diehard fans, they’ve been horsey throughout most of their marriage, which included many an afternoon playing the races at the Pleasanton fair. Then there was that date during which George watched helplessly as Clare was run-off with one memorable evening aboard what he describes as a “mustang.”

“They weren’t mustangs,” Clare said, wary of exaggeration. “But I did think I might get my head knocked off on a low branch.”

Schmitt, born in Manhattan, has spent his career in telecommunications, most significantly building a company called Omnipoint Communication Services, which morphed into VoiceStream Wireless and became something coveted by the European giant Deutsche Telekom. The deal closed in 2001 was valued at $28.5 billion, including $4.23 billion in cash to VoiceStream’s owners. The new American company became T-Mobil.

“That’s why we can afford these guys,” Schmitt said, nodding in the direction of Cambia. “But we own way too many.”

Schmitt cited a population of just more than a hundred head. Among them have been Izzy Rules and Frumious, both stakes winners this year, and Sierra Sunset, a son of Bertrando who won the 2008 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn for Bonde.

“We’ve been lucky,” Schmitt said. “We’ve only been in the business eight years, and we’ve won 35 stakes. But we’re still learning all the time.”

They also own 36 acres near Lake Tahoe (elevation 6,350 feet) where parts of the TV series “Bonanza” were filmed during its 14-year run, giving them the right to call it the Ponderosa. Cambina spent time there last fall when she was turned out after the Breeders’ Cup.

“Jeff said her work the other day was her best ever,” Schmitt said. “If that’s the case, we could have some fun.”

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