12/23/2001 1:00AM

Madera switching focus to the racetrack


ARCADIA, Calif. - What began as a teenage obsession has become a lifelong job for Cal Fischer, who has never ventured far from a racehorse in the last 50 years.

Fischer has owned and operated Madera Thoroughbred Farm in central California for 25 years, standing a few stallions and raising horses on a 160-acre property divided by the Fresno River.

He is not a retiree with an enviable bank account who considers horses a follow-up to a successful career. Instead, he has always been more comfortable in blue jeans and work boots, holding a shank attached to a yearling.

"I've never known anything else," Fischer said.

Through thick and thin, he has stuck to the business of caring for stallions, broodmares, and weanlings, and then selling his stock. Now, at age 64, he says his days of selling all his top racing prospects are gone. Instead, he wants to campaign a major stakes winner, one bred and raised at home.

Fischer, a California native, is convinced that such success is just around the corner. It could come in the form of a weanling grazing today in a field or a yearling that is going through its early racing lessons before being shipped to trainers Tim Pinfield or Doug O'Neill.

Or, it could be Serene in Seattle, the homebred who finished a promising fifth in the California Cup Distaff two months ago at Oak Tree.

"If you look at our babies, I think I've got three as good-looking as Officer and Tiznow," Fischer said. "We're making steps in the right direction.

"We started racing more when the sales went bad. I was raised as a market breeder: You sell everything and hope for the best. That doesn't work."

Success at Keeneland

This has already been a milestone year for Fischer and his wife, Jill. In partnership with Three Chimneys Farm, they sold their first horse at the Keeneland July yearling sale, a Rahy filly out of Excitement who brought $140,000.

At the Del Mar sale a month later, the Fischers sold three yearlings for a total of $144,000, including a Benchmark colt for $57,000. He is a half-brother to Vapor Trail, one of Madera's most successful racehorses in recent years.

Now retired as a broodmare, Vapor Trail earned $183,785 and was third in the Miss America Handicap at Bay Meadows, the Solana Beach Handicap at Del Mar, and the Possibly Perfect Stakes at Santa Anita. The only thing missing on her resume was a stakes win.

Madera stands four stallions - Boulder Dam, Lil Tyler, Slew of Angels, and Comet Shine.

Lil Tyler has had the biggest impact, siring Awesome Daze, the winner of the 1997 California Cup Classic, and Vapor Trail. Awesome Daze was claimed for $10,000 last October and now resides at Madera as a part-time pony, full-time pet.

He and the other horses reside on a property with a strong sense of tradition. The farm was once the site of the Huntley Ranch, where top-class Quarter Horses were raised.

An early start in the life

Fischer was born in Ontario, Calif., and began walking hots at age 14. He cites veterinarian Jack Robbins and trainer Eddie Neloy as two men who influenced his career.

"When Neloy would win a race, he'd come back to the barn with a six-pack of beer and talk about what we could do better," Fischer said.

After spending four years at Cal Poly-Pomona, Fischer eventually settled in Calistoga, where he ran a farm for 24 years.

He bought Madera in the late 1970's and met Jill in 1985 at a reception for the late state Sen. Ken Maddy, whose district included Fresno. At the time, Jill was a computer instructor at Fresno City College.

"He was jovial and outgoing," Jill said of Cal. "He knew everything there was to know about horse racing."

Four years later they were married. Jill taught until 1995 before devoting full energy to the farm.

"We live, eat, and sleep horses," Jill said. "We see them born and go into training. You're part of it all the time. It's a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year situation."

Upgrading the program

Next year, Madera will have several yearlings at auction, though Fischer says he is upset at the selection process for the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Del Mar yearling sale. He is not alone. Last year, the CTBA looked at more than 500 yearlings before choosing 144 for the catalog, leaving many breeders disappointed.

While the prices that the Madera yearlings fetched last August will not rock the national scene, they are above average for the California market.

To achieve their goal of breeding horses capable of racing at the top levels, the Fischers have sent mares to Crafty Prospector, Grindstone, and Smoke Glacken in Kentucky as well as to stallions at home.

A 3-year-old prospect named Lil More Jazz, who is at the farm and about to enter training, is one to follow, Cal Fischer said. Maybe he will be the horse to give Fischer the victory he's been dreaming about for his half-century in the business.

"I will get to the Derby, I don't know which derby," he said. "Right now, I don't feel like that big of a success. The biggest thing - I want to win some of these major races before I croak."