03/15/2006 12:00AM

Kids to the Cup dying a sad death

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ARCADIA, Calif. - A filly like Round Pond, fast and brave, is bound to have friends in all sorts of places, from the Delaware neighborhoods of owner Rick Porter to her winter playground of Oaklawn Park, where she added last Saturday's Azeri Handicap to her victories in last year's Fantasy and Honeybee.

There is no place, however, quite like the Rancho Santa Fe chapter of the Round Pond Fan Club, where Trudy McCaffery watched the Azeri unfold with motherly delight. McCaffery bred Round Pond in partnership with John Toffan, and the Azeri thriller over Happy Ticket was just the kind of performance they have grown to expect from such world-class homebreds as Free House, Came Home, Bienamado, and A.P. Assay.

"It was a very good race, and fun to watch," McCaffery said. "She's been a lot of fun to follow. It's always great to race the horses you breed, and have success. But it's also nice to have bred and sold one as good as her. You can't keep them all."

Since McCaffery and Toffan burst onto the national scene with the stubborn Mane Minister - third in all three legs of the 1991 Triple Crown - they have accumulated some of racing's greatest prizes, including the Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, Hopeful Stakes, and two runnings each of the Pacific Classic, the San Juan Capistrano, and the Swaps Stakes.

McCaffery, though, has made an impact far beyond her many appearances in the winner's circle. She has shared her wisdom as a director on the boards of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Thoroughbred Owners of California, and more recently became a director of the Oak Tree Racing Association, which operates a meeting each October at Santa Anita Park that contributes millions to a variety of equine-related causes.

But if you had to pin her down, McCaffery would point to a group called Kids to the Cup as her most satisfying accomplishment in horse racing.

Nothing gave McCaffery more joy than KTTC's annual field trips for young people to the Breeders' Cup, Triple Crown, and Santa Anita Derby, which included backstretch visits with the game's top names. For her, there was no greater satisfaction than knowing the organization over the last six years touched the lives of more than 1,200 kids, ages 8-16, universally linked by a love of horse racing and access to the Internet. And, given the youth of the membership, McCaffery is inspired by the fact that there are more than a dozen former Cuppers at work in the racing industry, with several more attending industry programs at either the University of Arizona or the University of Louisville.

That is why it was so hard for McCaffery to pull the plug on Kids to the Cup, announcing recently that the group was going out of business.

"It's getting harder and harder to raise the money," McCaffery said, citing a common theme among racing's most deserving non-profits. "We always got a lot of support from racetracks in terms of access, tickets, and such. But with a couple of exceptions, the financial support was not there. And we've lost some major individual contributors and supporters, especially Prince Ahmed Salman and Bob Lewis."

The KTTC concept was so simple, so pure, that it was almost a given that racing should pursue such goals. It has been proven time and again, if you grow a racing fan early, you've got them for life. The NTRA seemed to get it, back in 2002, when McCaffery was presented with the Commissioner's Trophy for her work with Kids to the Cup.

"The industry seems to be concentrating so much on other issues, a group like ours just doesn't get the same kind of support it used to," McCaffery said. "I'm just so appreciative of all the support we did get through the years. To get as far as we did was amazing."

As the heart and soul of Kids to the Cup, McCaffery has been tireless in her pursuit of that support. Unfortunately, her energies are required these days in a personal battle with cancer, and ongoing treatments for an inoperable tumor discovered on a lung.

"I don't want people to think it was only my illness that led to this decision," McCaffery said. "At the same time, I couldn't imagine myself lying awake at night worrying about the future of Kids to the Cup, while dealing with everything else."

And so McCaffery is left with e-mails like these from former KTTC members, sent to KTTC managing director John DeSantis in hopes that the story wasn't true.

"I really would hate to see this fall apart!" wrote Steph Slinger, who became an exercise rider. "Horse racing is so difficult to be a part of and get involved in, especially for younger people."

"I cannot believe it," wrote Claire Powers, a jockey in training. "I just wanted to let you know that I am so thankful for all that has been done for me. I have made so many life-long friends and amazing experiences because of the program."

DeSantis, who writes a regular column on the Xpressbet.com website, recalled a question from a potential KTTC donor, perhaps a bit weary from the steady tide of appeals from groups representing racing's disabled and forgotten.

" 'So,' " he asks, " 'what's wrong with these kids?' "

Nothing. That was the beauty of Kids to the Cup. Nothing at all wrong with these young people, unless there's something wrong with being a horse racing fan.