09/02/2010 1:00PM

McAnally back in the winner's circle

Four-Footed Fotos
Trainer Ron McAnally (right) and owner Richard Duchossois in the winner’s circle after Eclair de Lune’s victory in the Beverly D. The win was McAnally’s first in a Grade 1 race since Sweet Return won the Eddie Read Handicap in July 2005.

There have been sweeter packages than the one delivered by the 4-year-old German filly Eclair de Lune in the $750,000 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park on the afternoon of Aug. 21. But none comes quickly to mind.

Her victory gave Richard Duchossois, Arlington’s longtime champion and chairman, the trophy in the race he created to honor his late wife, Beverly Duchossois, in 1987. To describe Duchossois as deeply committed to winning the race someday would not have been an exaggeration.

Eclair de Lune got the job done, thanks in large part to the work of her trainer, Ron McAnally, and a devoted crew back in Southern California that has been hanging tough through some lean recent years. The McAnally stable record fell to just four wins from 90 starters in 2009, which wasn’t a whole lot better than the 18 wins from 254 starters the year before. As 2010 dawned and McAnally approached his 78th birthday, the doomsayers were poised to file him away under yesterday’s news.

Then Eclair de Lune triumphed in Chicago, and Buenos Dias nearly pulled off an 18-1 upset in last weekend’s Del Mar Handicap, leading even the most jaded observers to recalibrate.

“There’s life around here after all,” McAnally declared. “All I need is the horse.”

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Even McAnally will admit he’s had more than his share of good ones. Major stakes winners decorate his record as far back as 1960, when King o’ Turf won a division of the San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita. McAnally has been a member of the Hall of Fame since 1990, joined there by three champions who among them accounted for 11 national championships: Bayakoa, Paseana, and John Henry.

The hallmark of the McAnally record is all about quality, first and foremost, which is why he stands as America’s seventh all-time leading trainer in purses won, why he could have had a season like he did in 1992 when his horses earned only $1.5 million less than leader D. Wayne Lukas – $9.8 million to $8.3 million – on fewer than half the total starts, and why a Grade 1 winner like Eclair de Lune can still emerge from a downsized stable that had gone without a major stakes winner for more than three years.

If McAnally has a secret – in terms of both persistence and longevity – it would have to be his ability to take the bad with the good and never blink an eye. Well, almost never.

“You’ve got to remember, this was the man who cried the day Bayakoa won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and Go for Wand broke down trying to beat her,” said veterinarian Kurt Hoffman, who has worked for McAnally since 1985. “That’s how much he loves these animals.

“But when it comes to all his success, he just never gets that high,” Hoffman said. “Even with John Henry, he never let himself get carried away, and because of that I think he might have handled that horse a little better than others might have. Don’t get me wrong, he’s always appreciated what he had, and enjoyed the good times when they come. But he also knows that racing has its ups and downs, which is why, in the last little while when things have tailed off, he’s been frustrated, sure. But he’s never really gotten that low, either.”

The popular buzz word is “grounded,” and you can’t get much more grounded than being raised in a orphanage in Covington, Ky., which McAnally was with his two brothers and two sisters. McAnally still remembers scrabbling across the icy slate roof of the Covington Protestant Children’s Home on a winter’s day in a desperate attempt to flee for a little fling outside the walls. Christmas meant a fresh orange or maybe, if the boys were really lucky, a new baseball to pass around.

Perhaps such roots help explain why so many of the McAnally stars through the years have been castoffs, goofballs, or equine orphans of some kind, led by the often-sold John Henry, who earned more than $6 million in McAnally’s care.

They were all welcomed into the fold. Sea Cadet, with his sorry excuse for a tail, was good enough to win the Donn and Gulfstream Park handicaps. The one-eyed Cassaleria banked more than half a million dollars. Silver Ending, he of the platinum-tipped tail, cost $1,500 at auction and went on to win an Arkansas Derby. Candy Ride’s X-rays from his Argentine racing were so bad that even the bravest of owners turned him down before McAnally gave the colt thumbs up and won a Pacific Classic.

Pay Tribute, beautifully bred and formerly trained by Bobby Frankel, needed daily sessions from McAnally’s crew watching races at the backstretch rail before he could settle down long enough to win the 1976 Hollywood Gold Cup and Meadowlands Cup. Sweet Return’s feet you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, and yet the chestnut won major races at 3, 4, and 5. And never forget that Bayakoa arrived in the McAnally barn a buck-toothed, South American nut job, prone to tieing up and falling down, and left as queen of all she surveyed.

“Ron does it his way,” Hoffman said. “He relies on the veterinarian to help him get that horse to the races probably less than most trainers. Even when he had a lot of horses, a vet could go hungry around his barn.”

Still, it takes horses, horses, and more horses for any trainer to survive, especially into his later years. In the unforgiving patronage system of the business, a trainer, at any age, can only do so much with what he is provided. McAnally, who cut his teeth when Bill Molter, Red McDaniel, and Mesh Tenney ruled the roost in the 1950s, witnessed the stables of such California giants as Charlie Whittingham, Bob Wheeler, Buster Millerick, Mel Stute, and Noble Threewitt shrink around them as the years advanced.

McAnally assembled an enviable list of clients, including, at one time or another, Allen Paulson, Sidney Craig, Khalid Abdullah, Jack Kent Cooke, Robert Walter, Frank Whitham, Alex Campbell, Charles Cella, John Brunetti, Tadahiro Hotehama, and perhaps the most demanding client of them all, Mrs. Debbie McAnally, the trainer’s wife.

“When I wanted to get into owning horses, in 2000, I asked a friend about a trainer, and he said he could introduce me to Ron McAnally,” said Arnold Zetcher, the retired CEO of the Talbot’s clothing stores. “My reaction was, ‘Really? McAnally?’ The thought of sitting down with the trainer of John Henry, Bayakoa, and Paseana and talking about owning horses was almost too much to believe.

“But I was very lucky,” Zetcher said. “I learned a lot from Ron, especially the need to be patient in this business.”

For the most part, McAnally’s owners have been businessmen such as Zetcher and not high-volume breeders. The exceptions were Maxwell Gluck, proprietor of Elmendorf Farm, and Verne Winchell, the pastries entrepreneur who put McAnally on the map in 1961 with Donut King, winner of the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. McAnally was 29 at the time, a prepostrously young age for success in that era, at that level.

To that point, McAnally was known primarily as the right hand man for his uncle, Reggie Cornell, who trained the stretch-running fan favorite Silky Sullivan as well as a string for Calumet Farm. It was Uncle Reggie who plucked the teenage version of McAnally out of northern Kentucky and into the world of the racetrack, not long after the end of World War II.

“We went to Rhode Island that winter,” McAnally recalled, and shivered when he said it. “Don’t tell me anything about the leaky-roof and cold-water circuit, because the roofs leaked and there was nothing but cold water.”

Such memories supply the grit for McAnally to survive a year like 2008. That July, he lost his good friend and loyal patron Sidney Craig, owner of Candy Ride and Paseana, to cancer. Barely a month later, McAnally was kicked in the leg on the way to his barn one morning by a horse being carelessly ponied on the backstretch. He suffered a hematoma that laid him up for several weeks. Later that year, Zetcher, his primary owner at the time, sent his horses to other trainers. Among those who departed were eventual major stakes winners Zardana, EZ’s Gentleman, and Gabby’s Golden Gal.

“It was tough to watch him go through that,” said Ed Goldstone, a Hollywood agent and lifelong racetracker who once worked as an assistant trainer to McAnally. “And he’s still got so much to offer. He’s very much in the game – all you have to do is come out here and watch him at work. I’ve never seen anything resembling a look of retirement on his face.”

Especially now, with at least three runners of quality in his hands. Buenos Dias, owned by Charles Cella, will continue to show up in long-distance turf races. Eclair de Lune will be pointed for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Churchill Downs. And on Saturday, the 78-year-old McAnally will send out the 2-year-old filly Sugarinthemorning, owned by Stephen Weismann, in the Grade 1, $250,000 Darley Debutante. The daughter of Candy Ride has won her only start.

“Owners these days are looking for younger trainers, but they want them to have the experience of older trainers,” McAnally said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

What still works, McAnally insisted, has worked for a long time.

“Just give me the horse,” he said. “All I need is the horse.”

McAnally through the years

1958 – Gets first win as trainer with Hemet Star at Hollywood Park

1960 – King O’Turf wins the San Fernando to give him his first stakes win

1961 – Makes first national headlines winning Champagne Stakes with Donut King

1975 – Stakes a claim as one of California’s elite trainers by winning Del Mar Debutante and Del Mar Handicap on the same weekend.

1976 – Wins Hollywood Gold Cup with Pay Tribute

1979 – Wins a division of the Henry P. Russell Handicap at Santa Anita with John Henry, first of 18 Southern California stakes wins for the gelding

1980 – Wins his first training title, at Del Mar

1981 – John Henry becomes first horse to win a million-dollar Thoroughbred race in the inaugural Arlington Million

1981 – Wins Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer; John Henry wins Eclipses for older male, male turf horse, and Horse of the Year

1982 – Trains John Henry to become first two-time winner of Santa Anita Handicap

1984 – John Henry is named Horse of the Year and is retired with then-record earnings of $6,597,947

1989 – Wins first Breeders’ Cup with Bayakoa in the Distaff

1990 – Inducted into racing Hall of Fame

1991 – Wins second Jockey Club Gold Cup with Festin

1991 – Wins second outstanding trainer Eclipse Award

1992 – Wins Donn Handicap with Sea Cadet

1992 – Paseana is his third Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner in four years and wins Eclipse Award for top older female

1992 – Named outstanding trainer for second straight year, third overall

1993 – Wins Metropolitan Mile with Ibero

1995 – Northern Spur wins Grade 1 Oak Tree and Breeders’ Cup turf and takes champion turf honors

1996 – Wins third Santa Anita Handicap with longshot Mr. Purple

1997 – Wins Milady Handicap at Hollywood Park for the sixth time in nine years

1998 – Passes Farrell Jones’s mark of 414 career wins at Del Mar; passes Charlie Whittingham's mark of 201 career wins at Oak Tree

2003 – Wins his first Pacific Classic with the undefeated Candy Ride

2004 – Wins second Fantasy Stakes with House of Fortune

2005 – Wins Eddie Read Handicap for third time with Sweet Return

2009 – Inducted into the Northern Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame

2010 – Wins first Beverly D Stakes with Eclair de Lune