02/01/2008 1:00AM

Lost to a claim but still paying off


Don't bother feeling sorry for Betsy Houghton.

Sure, the 8-year-old Pennsylvania-bred gelding Banjo Picker has won six stakes and earned $497,822 since Houghton, his breeder, lost him in a $15,000 claiming race back in 2004.

But Banjo Picker's ultra-consistent efforts have generated a steady flow of breeder's awards from the Pennsylvania Breeding Fund, including $9,000 for his front-running victory in the Le Grande Pos Handicap for statebreds last Saturday at Philadelphia Park.

Unlike many breeders, who are dismayed when homebreds are claimed from them, Houghton and her husband, Ronnie, expect it to happen.

"We can't keep them all," said Betsy Houghton.

About a dozen of their own broodmares give birth each spring at the Houghtons' 300-acre Sylmar Farm near Quarryville, in southeastern Pennsylvania. The youngsters receive their early education at home before going on to race at the Pennsylvania tracks.

With few exceptions, the Houghtons' homegrown products are blue-collar runners. They don't have the flashy pedigrees that would make them valuable commodities in the sales ring, but they tend to be sound and well-prepared to compete in the claiming races that fill the daily cards at Philadelphia Park.

The Houghtons perennially rank among the leading recipients of Pennsylvania Breeding Fund awards, and topped the list in 2004 with a grand total of $129,192. They ranked third in 2007, amassing $136,083.

Once the horse has left their care, breeder's awards (amounting to 30 percent of the purse share for first-, second-, and third-place Pennsylvania-bred finishers conceived in the state, and 20 percent for Pennsylvania-breds sired elsewhere) are like manna from heaven - all profit and no expenses. And the Houghtons' strategy is bringing even larger dividends as revenue from slots drives purses to higher levels.

Banjo Picker's bloodlines did not mark him as anything special. His sire, Swear by Dixie (a son of Dixieland Band), had a lackluster stud career at Bonita Farm in Darlington, Md., and was banished to Chile a few years ago.

Banjo Picker's dam, Sean's Gold (by U. S. Flag), was a giveaway mare.

"Her race record was so-so," recalled Houghton of the mare' 6 victories from 28 starts and $63,245 in earnings. "But the girl who gave her to us was proud of having claimed her. I think she said there were something like 20 claim slips in for Sean's Gold that day at Meadowlands."

In exchange for giving the Houghtons the mare, Bruce Holt and Eileen Holt were listed as the breeder of Sean's Gold's first foal, a 1999 In Case filly named Full Tilt, who was also a modest winner.

Banjo Picker was born the following year.

Brought to the races as a 3-year-old with Ronnie Houghton as his trainer, Banjo Picker won his maiden race in his third start, in special weight company at Philadelphia Park. But he had yet to return to the winner's circle when trainer Steve Krebs claimed him on behalf of owner Danny Limongelli in August of his 4-year-old season.

Krebs thought Banjo Picker might be a useful allowance horse.

"He's a Pennsylvania-bred, and I always take an extra look at Pennsylvania-breds," said Krebs.

Banjo Picker won 3 of his first 4 starts for Krebs and Limongelli, an automobile dealer in Kingston, Pa.

But it was not until the summer of his 5-year-old season that Banjo Picker's career took off in earnest. He won the Lyman Sprint Championship Handicap in July 2005 against rival Pennsylvania-breds, and closed out the year with a victory in the Grade 3 Gravesend Handicap at Aqueduct.

A stakes winner at 6, 7, and now at age 8, he won the Devil's Honor Handicap at Philadelphia Park two years in a row, and last year added the Power by Far Handicap. He also has placed in six stakes.

Banjo Picker's latest win pushed his earnings to $527,661 from 38 starts.

Krebs is undecided about his next start, but he says Banjo Picker came out of the Le Grande Pos in fine shape.

Since joining Krebs's stable at Philadelphia Park, Banjo Picker has been ridden in all of his races by Krebs's wife, Tara Hemmings.

"Tara gets on him every day," says Krebs. "Sometimes he stands by the track for a half-hour, with Tara on his back, just watching the other horses train. He's a great horse to be around. We take good care of all our horses, but he gets extra care. He's the big horse in our barn."

Meanwhile, the Houghtons are hoping that the run continues. Sean's Gold was euthanized in early 2006 after failing to recover from injuries suffered in a paddock accident. But her 3-year-old daughter, Silhoutte Island, by Patton, is in training at Sylmar.

The Houghtons also have Banjo Picker's half-sister Prairie Heat (by Malibu Moon), whom they raced to win 3 of 11 starts and earn $54,190. She is due to deliver her first foal this season, by Maryland-based stallion Domestic Dispute.