05/07/2008 11:00PM

McAnally left any ghosts far behind

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Okay, so you can go home again. For Ron McAnally, though, it was a little bit unsettling to return to the neighborhood of his youth last month only to find that he was being honored in the very same spooky old house that was known for a fact to be haunted.

At least, that was the word at the Covington Protestant Children's Home near Devou Park in the town of Covington, Ky., where McAnally and his two brothers and two sisters were raised when their widowed father could no longer care for them. Though not technically an orphan, McAnally might as well have been, and a certifiably haunted house down the block was worth its weight in terms of distractions from the reality of his otherwise bleak surroundings.

McAnally and his wife, Debbie, were in Covington on April 5 for the opening of the "Reach for the Stars" exhibition at the Behringer-Crawford Museum. McAnally was among a group of sports notables with northern Kentucky roots being celebrated with displays of memorabilia and a special reception.

The company was pretty good. Included on the roster of honorees were fellow racing Hall of Famers Steve Cauthen and Eddie Arcaro, as well as NFL MVP Shaun Alexander, Major League Baseball all-star David Justice, and NBA Hall of Famer Dave Cowens. U.S. Senator and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning was the keynote speaker.

"When we pulled up to the museum, I couldn't believe it," McAnally said upon his return. "Not only was the orphanage just down the street, here we were at this old house. It's been beautifully restored. But when we were kids, it was pretty run down. We'd ride right past it on our bikes going to junior high. I kept looking around for ghosts."

McAnally is one of only a handful of trainers to have crafted the careers of at least three Hall of Fame horses. In his case they were John Henry, Bayakoa, and Paseana. If he's got a future Hall of Famer somewhere in the barn right now, though, the secret is safe. His best filly, the 3-year-old Izarra, was sidelined this winter with a fracture, leaving a group of hard-knockers just happy to have steady jobs.

Most of the McAnally stable headlines have been made this year by the 7-year-old sprinter Bonfante, a son of the Woodman stallion Fruition, who will be running on Saturday in the $100,000 Los Angeles Handicap. Defending champ Sailors Sunset, Triple Bend winner Bilo, and the upwardly mobile Street Boss help make for an interesting six furlongs on the same card as the 1 1/2-mile Jim Murray Memorial Handicap.

"He's the star of our barn right now," McAnally said. "But the way he walks out of his stall, you wouldn't know it. He's a long-backed horse who walks kind of wide behind, and really looks like he might run a distance. We tried it, but that didn't work."

McAnally is celebrating his 50th year as a trainer this summer at Hollywood Park, where he saddled his first winner, Hemet Star, in 1958. His career has been marked with a host of outstanding distance runners, but there have been a few choice speedballs among them as well, including Syncopate (winner of the Boojum, the True North, and the Bing Crosby), Ibero (winner of the Metropolitan Handicap and the NYRA Mile), and Railbird Stakes winner Olympic Charmer, bred and owned by Debbie McAnally.

The Los Angeles Handicap has been a Hollywood Park mainstay since 1938. Champions and Hall of Famers decorate the list of winners, including Ack Ack, J.O. Tobin, Kona Gold, Cardmania, and Porterhouse. Hall of Famer Native Diver won it twice, and the freshly minted Hall of Famer Ancient Title took the race in 1974.

McAnally won two earlier versions of the Los Angeles Handicap with Soft Victory, at seven furlongs, in 1973 and then with J.F. Williams in 1994, going six furlongs. Among those behind J.F. Williams was Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Thirty Slews.

Despite a history of breathing trouble and a persistent bleeding issue, Bonfante has run well for all four of his trainers through a career of 12 wins in 31 starts for Lewis Figone and Eugene Tenbrink, who also get credit as the breeders. McAnally has had Bonfante since March of 2007, with 4 wins and 4 seconds in 10 starts.

"I think we found out something that might be helping him," McAnally noted. "Rather than giving him a hayrack, we feed him his hay on the ground, like we do with any horse who has had throat surgery. This keeps them from maybe getting a piece of hay in their lungs. Sometimes it's just the little things."

Bonfante had the Bay Meadows Sprint Championship on March 15 handed to him on a platter when local hotshots Vicarino and Tribesman ran each other into the ground. In his next start, however, Bonfante had to be game to squeak through a hole on the rail to win the California Sprint Championship on April 5 by a head.

"He's a little anxious at the gate, but he usually breaks right with them," said McAnally, who will have Martin Garcia in the saddle on Saturday. "After that you can usually do anything you want with him."

Winning the L.A. Handicap would be just fine.