04/30/2007 12:00AM

Local fixture set to kick up his heels


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Red Dog is to Shively as Oliver Twist was to London, Paul Bunyan to the Upper Midwest timberland, Tom and Huck to the Mississippi.

That is, it is impossible to think of the character without thinking of a place. In the case of Gary "Red Dog" Hartlage, who was born and raised and remains tethered to the working-class suburb nestled just southwest of downtown Louisville, about a $10 cab ride from Churchill Downs, a lifetime of training racehorses is inextricably linked to Shively, where he has lived his entire 60 years.

"I was jumping that fence over there to get in when I was 11," said Hartlage, nodding toward the brick barrier along the Churchill property line on Central Avenue. "You had to be 16 then, I think, although if you were 14 or 15 they might let you slide. I'd run over here all the time. Been here ever since."

Hartlage, the trainer of 2007 Kentucky Oaks contender High Heels, got his nickname in his formative years of training when a plodding steed named Kentucky Moonshine returned from the track with an exercise rider who said the horse was something akin to the second coming of Man o' War. Another trainer, Hartlage's lifelong friend Donnie Grego, scoffed.

"Grego said, 'That horse couldn't outrun a dog,' " recalled Hartlage, and with his full head of flaming red hair, Hartlage then became forever known as Red Dog.

Since 1968, Hartlage has made a short drive every morning - not counting the three-plus months he spends wintering each year at Oaklawn Park - from Shively to the Churchill barn area, where he has trained a medium-to-large public stable of horses. His clientele has ranged from free-spenders such as Bob "Country" Roberts, whose rise in the the racing game in the late 1990s was as meteoric as his fall, to nickel-and-dime syndicates that frequently trace their roots to mom-and-pop businesses in Shively. Today, his most enduring and productive trainer-client relationship is with Anita Ebert, whose late husband, Barry, began giving Hartlage horses to train in 1986. Ebert owns five of the 13 horses Hartlage currently has in Barn 37 at Churchill.

"It was the same year Savings won the Derby Trial," is how Hartlage, who just happened to train Savings, remembers them starting out together.

Barry Ebert, a retired investments manager, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm in 2003, leaving Anita a spacious horse farm in Monrovia, Ind., about a half-hour southwest of Indianapolis. The Eberts, who were married 15 years, had a shared love of horses and racing, and in her grief, Anita has immersed herself in maintaining a successful breed-to-race operation.

High Heels, a homebred by E Dubai out of Ornate, by Gilded Time, is poised to take Anita Ebert somewhere she never thought possible. As the runaway winner of the Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes earlier this month at Oaklawn, High Heels has become one of the top contenders, behind the formidable Todd Pletcher duo of Rags to Riches and Octave, for the $500,000 Kentucky Oaks, which will be run Friday at Churchill Downs for the 133rd time.

"I told Gary the other day that when I think about what's really happening, it makes me want to cry," said Ebert.

High Heels took five starts to win a maiden race, which she did on Nov. 8 in the slop at Churchill. She then finished third in the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill to end her 2-year-old campaign. She opened her 3-year-old season with an eight-length romp in a Jan. 21 allowance at Oaklawn.

After finishing fifth in the Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds, and then second in the Honeybee at Oaklawn, High Heels exploded with a 6 3/4-length triumph in the April 6 Fantasy, spotting the field a few lengths at the start before passing them all with a ferocious kick. She earned a lifetime-high Beyer Speed Figure of 95, a number that puts her on a par with Rags to Riches, who earned a 93 and 96 in her last two races, both of them Grade 1 wins at Santa Anita.

"She's that kind of horse," said Hartlage. "She's done what these other fillies have done, and she's got more experience. We've won over this racetrack."

Hartlage said High Heels is temperamental "in both a good way and a bad way."

"She's just about crazy enough to win this thing," he said.

Anita Ebert named High Heels for a fancy event like the Oaks. "Gary would say, 'If you want to go to the big dance, you've got to dress up and put on your high heels,' " she said. "I'll have my high heels on Friday."

When Churchill opened its spring meet Saturday, Ebert and Hartlage hosted a big cookout at the barn after the races, with barn staff and friends and family celebrating the return of live racing to Louisville. Most everyone had some sort of tie to Shively, where the citizenry has not harbored this much excitement for Red Dog since the day Judge T C won the 1995 Clark Handicap and half the town, give or take a few head, showed up in the Churchill winner's circle.

Ebert and Hartlage both acknowledge that High Heels will have to be lucky - and very, very good - to win the Oaks. They are counting on the filly to run the race of her life, to give them their greatest thrill amid lifetimes devoted to racing, to add to the folklore of the most successful trainer ever to hail from Shively, Ky. It would be the stuff of legends, indeed.