03/26/2009 11:00PM

Lil E. Tee flawed yet priceless

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Lil E. Tee, the 1992 Kentucky Derby winner who died on March 18, was not the most commercially successful stallion, as Old Frankfort Stud owner Jim Plemmons freely admits. That didn't bother Plemmons as much as you might expect, in an age when a stallion's place at a farm usually depends heavily on his moneymaking ability.

"Even though he averaged 6 percent stakes winners from starters, which is pretty high nowadays, he just wasn't commercially as successful in Kentucky as he would have been in any other state of the union," Plemmons, 72, said. "We had a lot of offers to sell him to other countries, to South America and Europe. But I so enjoyed him, I just couldn't stand to have him out of my sight, you know."

Pennsylvania-bred Lil E. Tee was "virtually given away three times," as Plemmons put it, before he became the 17-1 winner of the Kentucky Derby. Emergency abdominal surgery in 1989 rerouted the connection between his small and large intestines and saved his life. He looked unlikely to become much of a racehorse, but Lil E. Tee went on to win the Derby, the Jim Beam, and the Razorback Handicap; place in three more stakes; and earn more than $1.4 million for owner W. Cal Partee and trainer Lynn Whiting.

That Lil E. Tee, a son of At the Threshold, overcame so much in his lifetime - abdominal and knee surgery, a couple of viruses, and chronic underestimation by horsemen and sales officials - added to his popularity with his fans, including Plemmons.

"He was a real longshot to ever make it to the races," Plemmons said. "His family at the time was considered just average. But now, when you look at it, he's got Ghostzapper under his second dam, and farther down under the fifth dam you find Affirmed. There's a lot of really quality horses there. And people forget that even though his father wasn't all that successful, he still did run third in the Derby.

"And he looked like what a Derby winner should look like: 16-1 and long-bodied with short cannon bones, which enabled him to go a mile and a quarter or sprint."

Plemmons currently has a 2009 Lil E. Tee colt out of his Harlan's Holiday mare Beach Holiday.

Another breeder who had faith in Lil E. Tee is Tony Schuler, who bought W. Cal Partee's shares in the horse after Partee's death in 1999.

"They've all been good, useful horses," said Schuler, whose Lil E. Tees helped propel him to the top of Indiana's owner rankings in 2008. "Except for a couple of bad breaks, we might have had one or two really big runners."

In 2008, Schuler had such stakes winners as Easy Tee and Ryan's Thunder, Indiana's top 3-year-old. One of Schuler's mares, Broad Avenue, has produced three stakes performers by Lil E. Tee for Schuler's Pine Creek Farm: Ryan's Thunder, Lil Broad Tee, and Heart Tee. Before his death, Partee owned the Broad Brush mare and also got a Lil E. Tee stakes winner from her, Quit Complaining.

"Tee overcame so much, and he was a true champion with a lot of heart," Schuler said.

Lil E. Tee's big heart, as described in John Eisenberg's book "The Longest Shot," wasn't just figurative.

"Dr. [Alex] Harthill once said he had one of the largest hearts he'd ever seen in a horse," Schuler said. Harthill and Dr. Doug Byars estimated that Lil E. Tee's left heart chamber, measured via ultrasound, was about 12.3 centimeters wide when dilated; the average racehorse's was about 11.3 centimeters.

"We have a special place for him and we'll be putting in a big headstone," Plemmons said. "He was basically the heartbeat of the farm, and he was the standard by which we would judge the horses we bred. We bred Ten Most Wanted, and he went off favorite for the Derby, got hurt and came back to run second by a half-length in the Belmont and won the Travers. But he didn't do what Tee did, so we're still looking for that horse, like all horsemen are. We're going to leave his paddock open until we find something as good or better."

Under-tack preview at Lone Star

The next sale on the 2-year-old calendar is Fasig-Tipton's Texas 2-year-old auction on Tuesday. The under-tack preview is Sunday at Lone Star Park.

Despite 30 percent to 40 percent downturns at the major select 2-year-old sales so far this season, auction director Tim Boyce is holding out optimism that the slots-fueled Southwestern racing scene will provide a buffer against the wider market conditions.

"In the Southwest area, interest in racing has picked up, based on the purses driven by the slots," Boyce said. "I've gotten a lot of interest in the catalog, surprisingly enough in the economy, and most of that interest is being generated out of Louisiana, Oklahoma, and some from Texas. Hopefully, we'll be able to buck the trend."

The auction has a smaller catalog of 237 horses this year. Last year's sale grossed $2,883,000 for 168 horses, averaging $17,161, and had a $15,000 median.