07/04/2012 3:07PM

Hovdey: Moreno going for Gold again

Shigeki Kikkawa
Henry Moreno has had his life in horsemanship interrupted only by military service in the Korean War.

Henry Moreno is hardly shy about taking a swing at the Hollywood Gold Cup with a longshot. He tried to win the track’s big one in 1970 with Neurologo, an Argentine horse prone to occasional flights of fancy, and in 1971 with Comtal, a dead-game closer who battled through an athlete’s aches and pains.

Neurologo went to the front in his Gold Cup and held them all at bay except for Pleasure Seeker, who won by 3 1/2 lengths. As for Comtal, he had the honor of finishing second to Ack Ack in what turned out to be the final race of both Ack Ack’s Horse of the Year season and Hall of Fame career.

Over the ensuing decades, Moreno busied himself with a string of fillies and mares a grown trainer could be proud of, including Tizna, Sangue, Bastonera, Lucky Spell, Merry Lady, Lite Light, Re Toss and Timely Assertion, to name more than a few. Still, old habits die hard – sometimes the oldest the hardest – so here is Moreno again on Saturday trying to win the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup with a longshot in the face of the heavily favored Game On Dude.

Spud Spivens, a tongue-twister of a name that has nothing to do with his parentage, comes into the mile-and-a-quarter Gold Cup off what could be viewed as the best effort of his 23-race career. It was only an allowance event at a mile and one-sixteenth, but it caught Moreno’s eye in a big way, leading the trainer to believe his 4-year-old gelding was turning one of those elusive corners.

“The race was very impressive to me,” Moreno said Tuesday afternoon, from home in Arcadia. “I’ve always been crazy, but it was the kind of race that makes you want to take a shot.”

For public consumption, Moreno has made his brand of crazy very entertaining since the mid-1960’s, when he hit the headlines with the Argentine mare Jalousie II. Moreno will tell you he showed up in Buenos Aires cold, asked around about the best mare, and was steered in the direction of the guy who represented El Presidente himself, Juan Peron. Moreno peeled $15,000 worth of hundreds from a money belt to buy Jalousie, then brought her home to California.

“I just took a shot,” Moreno says today.

Anyway, that’s the legend, and when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Jalousie went on to win the Vanity, Ramona, Milady, and Wilshire Handicaps and place in six other stakes. A parade of South Americans followed, led by the Chilean mare Tizna, who won the Santa Margarita Invitational twice and the Ladies Handicap in New York.

“She won here at Santa Anita with 132 pounds,” Moreno said, referring to Tizna’s win in the 1976 San Gorgonio Handicap (now the Robert J. Frankel Stakes). “Only two horses ever run and won at Santa Anita carrying that weight: Round Table and Tizna.”

If nothing else, it’s fitting that Spud Spivens carries the blood of Tizna through his sire, Tizbud, a full brother to Horse of the Year Tiznow. Tizna was their maternal granddam, and like the durable Tizna (54 starts, 37 in the money), Spud Spivens comes to play.

“He’s as sound as any horse I ever trained in my life,” Moreno said. “Just one of those horses just a pleasure to be around. He’s a good sized, heavy-muscled horse who gallops good, eats good, and comes back from his races hungry.”

Get a veteran trainer like Moreno talking about a horse like this and the years seem to unfold as he speaks, of laying hands on hundreds upon hundreds of racehorses, each one of them imprinting some lesson to be learned for keeps. Thirty or so horses was the most Moreno ever had in his barn – “I’d get confused with a hundred horses, and anyway, I wouldn’t be training them,” he said. – which tends to say a lot about how his generation defines the job.

The crazy version of Moreno boxed, rode bulls, and busted broncs growing up in the dusty town of Corona, east of L.A. It was a natural inclination, coming as he did from a racetrack family crowned by his uncle, Eddie Moreno, a legendary Quarter Horse jockey, trainer, and industry leader.

“It’s all I’ve ever done,” Moreno said. “The only time I did something else I was drafted and went to Korea. I was very lucky to come back, to be honest with you. I don’t remember what those places were called, but there were where people were getting killed. I had some of the closest calls a guy could have.”

Master Sergeant Henry Moreno was discharged from the Army and picked up where he left off – “I was just glad I could get back to the horses,” he said – eventually switching from Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds.

Moreno is also a master of the hard time. He will pull your leg just for practice. “Spud Spivens” was for years an alter-ego he deployed for prank calls and gullible strangers.

“I got the name from a rhyme,” Moreno said and recited a line, something about a guy who used a telephone pole for a toothpick. “Had an owner once on the phone who believed me enough to where I never could tell him who it really was.”

The real Spud Spivens will carry 114 pounds in the Gold Cup, compared to 124 on topweighted Game On Dude. Whether or not this makes a difference remains to be seen – there always seems to be more argument about handicap weights before races than after.

In the 1970 Gold Cup, Neurologo carried 109 pounds, almost entirely made up of jockey Bill Mahorney. In 1971, Comtal received 23 pounds from Ack Ack, 134-111, which got him within four lengths at the end.

“Comtal had sore shins,” Moreno recalled. “They were nothing really serious, but sore shins will stop a horse like anything else.

“As for Neurolgo, he had a bad habit of leaping in his races,” Moreno added. “He must have jumped five times in that Gold Cup otherwise he might have won.”

By contrast, Spud Spivens is sound in both body and mind. Now all that’s left is to find out if he’s good enough.

“We’re going to test him, that’s for sure,” Moreno concluded.