02/16/2007 1:00AM

McCaffery and her horses left their mark


ARCADIA, Calif. - Trudy McCaffery, the California horsewoman who died earlier this week after a lengthy illness, was well known for the numerous stakes horses that she campaigned in partnership with John Toffan.

In the late 1990's, they campaigned several stakes-winning California-breds, including two-time statebred horse of the year Free House.

One of six horses to hold that title for at least two years, Free House was considered a personal favorite by McCaffery. He is best known for finishing second or third in all three legs of the 1997 Triple Crown, and winning the 1997 Santa Anita Derby and the 1998 Pacific Classic.

Free House, who died in 2004, was named statebred horse of the year in 1997 and 1998.

"She loved that horse," Paco Gonzalez, the trainer of Free House, recalled at his barn on the Santa Anita backstretch on Friday.

McCaffery and Toffan bred primarily in Kentucky, but they made their mark with California-breds. Together, they won three California Cup races - the 1997 Mile with Gastown, the 1998 Classic with Bagshot, and the 1999 Juvenile with Spacelink. Bagshot was also second in the 1998 Classic to Budroyale.

Free House stood at stud at Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, Calif. Farm owner Scoop Vessels said that Free House was one of three horses that he pursued for his farm in late 1999, along with Charismatic and Silver Charm. Free House was the only one that he acquired.

"Free House was her boy," farm owner Scoop Vessels said of McCaffery. "She'd come out and visit him quite often. She was instrumental in keeping that horse here in California. She was pretty bullish on the California Thoroughbred breeding."

McCaffery was well known for her work in racing management and charitable organizations, such as Kids to the Cup, which gave children and teenagers access to the sport. It was in those capacities that she made scores of friends. Many gathered in her honor for a memorial reception at Santa Anita on Friday evening.

"She was one of the very unique ones," Vessels said by telephone from Mexico on Friday. "I respect very much people that give of their time for something that has given so much joy. A lot of people take and don't give back. She would raise her hand for so many things, to be part of the policy making."

John Harris, a prominent breeder and the vice chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, wrote in an e-mail earlier this week that McCaffery was a "true friend" to the sport of horse racing. "She served tirelessly for the good of the industry," he said.

California breeder John Barr recalls presenting McCaffery and Toffan with a horse of the year award for Free House at a ceremony in Sacramento. At the time, Barr only casually knew McCaffery, largely through her appearances in the winner's circle.

"She's was a fantastic force," Barr said. "She used to call Bob Lewis the Energizer bunny. If there is a 'bunnyette,' she was a bunnyette."

Like many racing fans, Barr became an admirer of Free House.

"I thought he was fantastic," Barr said. "He knew what he was supposed to be doing, and he really wanted to win. I thought he was very good at intimidating other horses down the stretch. I don't mean he'd savage them, but he'd look them in the eye.

"To [run second or third] in all three races of the Triple Crown is a hell of an accomplishment. He was Trudy's favorite horse. No question about it."

Barr invited McCaffery to serve on the board of directors of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association in the late 1990's. "I served with her on the CTBA board and the Oak Tree board," he said. "She left too damned early."