06/25/2003 11:00PM

Looking for an Eclipse out of Africa

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When it comes to buying top-class horses in foreign lands, the consensus of experienced horsemen in the United States is that France, England, and Argentina probably are the best places to start looking.

But Zimbabwe?

"It's not even on the radar screen," said Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor syndicate last August purchased an interest in the Zimbabwean superstar Ipi Tombe.

The transaction that ultimately landed Ipi Tombe in the Churchill Downs barn of trainer Elliott Walden is a story that defies virtually all commonly held beliefs about where a top horse can come from. In a deal that set Ipi Tombe's value at $750,000 - a number that now seems like a steal, but one that was established before she had proven how effective she might be outside of her home region - Team Valor bought 25 percent of the mare for $187,500, while Walden's primary client, WinStar Farm, paid $375,000 for 50 percent. The mare's original owners, a 22-member Zimbabwean syndicate known as Sunmark Partners, retained 25 percent.

Ipi Tombe had been brought to Irwin's attention after she beat up on inferior rivals in Zimbabwe - the south African country formerly known as Rhodesia - and South Africa. But because the level of competition in those countries is particularly weak in comparison with major racing jurisdictions, "it took a real leap of faith by Elliott and WinStar for us to get the deal done," Irwin said. "I really think that if it wasn't for Elliott, we wouldn't be in this position right now."

That position is an enviable one. Only half a year or so after the deal was consummated, Ipi Tombe had become widely recognized as the preeminent turf mare in the world. While still in the care of renowned South African trainer Michael deKock, Ipi Tombe had three starts last winter at Nad Al Sheba in Dubai, with the most recent race resulting in a truly remarkable win over males in the $2 million Dubai Duty Free on March 29.

In the moments following the Duty Free, Irwin, who was making his first trip to Dubai, could be seen scrapping mightily to maintain his position on the left rein of Ipi Tombe as he and one other person led the mare into an incredibly raucous winner's circle.

"Some of the Zimbabwe guys knew it was their last chance at glory, because they probably were never going to see her again," recalled Irwin. "It was like a tug of war. It was ridiculous. But I will say, it was a great experience. When you get a horse that comes from nowhere to win a race like that, it is overwhelming. It was the first time I'd had goose bumps like that in a long time."

Now Irwin and Walden, along with WinStar partners Bill Casner and Ken Troutt, have turned their attention to an American campaign that they hope will end with an Eclipse Award as top female turf horse. That campaign starts Saturday when Ipi Tombe will be a huge favorite in the Grade 3, $150,000 Locust Grove Handicap at Churchill.

"After Saturday, we're looking to run in the Diana Handicap" on July 26, the first Saturday of the Saratoga meet, Irwin said. "Then it'll be on to Chicago."

Ipi Tombe's name means "where are girls" in Xhosa, an African language. Ipi Tombe will run against girls in her first two starts in the United States, but what occurs after that is up for debate. Already, Irwin is making a plausible argument that Ipi Tombe - assuming she runs well in her first two starts here - should run against males in the Arlington Million, as opposed to staying within her division in the Beverly D. Both races are set for Aug. 16 at Arlington Park.

"Since our goal is to try to win an Eclipse Award, and she's not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, you have to do something outstanding to merit the Eclipse if you're not going to pay those exorbitant fees to become eligible for the Breeders' Cup," Irwin said.

"Winning the Arlington Million certainly would qualify as something that could do that for us. Arlington has a turf course that figures to be her kind of track. The 1 1/4 miles would be her optimal distance. It will be her third race in this country, and it looks like it could be a winnable race.

"What's hard for people in America to envision is how a mare can be so good that she can handle the boys. But it's not hard for me. I've seen this mare in action, so I've got a better feeling about it than most people would."