10/15/2001 11:00PM

Morton Fink: Modesty becomes him

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - On a dreary October Saturday a slight man with a gentle bearing lunched in a corner of Arlington's Trackside betting parlor, slightly removed from a herd of grumbling gamblers. Morton Fink, a lifelong Chicagoan, was doing what he had done for a great part of his adult life, spending an entertaining afternoon at the races.

Moments after he left his table of companions for a quiet spot away from the crowd, Fink declared, "I'm a terrible handicapper." Going to the races is still a hobby for Fink. "You bring what you bring and expect to lose it," he said.

At this point, the 71-year-old Fink can afford to lose every wager he makes on a rainy Saturday. But he plays down his success. He has been lucky, he reminds a visitor several times. Lucky in business, selling the movie theaters he owned to a national chain before the industry started tightening, and lucky in horse racing, too.

The longer you listen to Fink tell his story, the clearer it becomes that his success has substantially come from breeding and selling racehorses. And now Fink has a serious racehorse - his best in three decades, he says - Guided Tour, who goes into the Breeders' Cup Classic with a three-race win streak.

The modest Fink's first fear is that his partners in Guided Tour will be forgotten, since the horse runs in his name. They are Larry and Howard Kempler, Mort Cohn, and Eliah Kahn. But as the lessee of Guided Tour and the most seasoned of his owners, it is Fink who helps trainer Niall O'Callaghan call the shots.

"After 31 years of owning horses, to have one like this, it's unbelievable. I never thought it could happen," Fink said.

It would be easy to imagine that Fink had used up his share of luck in the Thoroughbred business. In fact, he has already won the equivalent of a Breeders' Cup in the bloodstock business, with a mare named Producer, a horse he and his partner, Roy Gottlieb, bred in 1976. Fink first utters her name casually, almost shyly, but there's a sliver of excitement, too. Soon he thinks better of having mentioned her at all, not wanting to be perceived as a glory-seeker. The tale must be dredged out of him.

After Producer's European and American racing career, Fink and his partner bred the Group 1-winning daughter of Nashua to Northern Dancer and sold her in foal in 1983, during a runaway bloodstock market. It was a grand slam. "There were other people to be paid," Fink protested when he disclosed the mare's selling price: $5.25 million. He smiled briefly, then said seriously, "You have to be very lucky in this game."

Then there was Annoconnor, a filly Fink bred in partnership. She was Fink's best racehorse until Guided Tour came along, winning $1 million, and in 1993 she was sold in foal for $700,000.

Do a little research and you will learn more. Neither of Fink's fillies hit as a broodmare; in fact both were disappointing. A couple years after Fink's home run, Producer sold for $450,000. A couple years after Fink sold Annoconnor, she was sold again for $75,000. The temptation must have existed for him to keep both mares and make money selling or racing their foals. Instead, he sold early. Luck, or good handicapping?

Getting in the game

Fink's father, who started the theater business Fink inherited, didn't care much for horse racing. It was Fink's mother who introduced him to the track. In the early 1970's Fink and a group of friends plunked down $1,000 each to claim a horse. "Oh, it was terrible," Fink said. "He bucked shins four times. But it was a great experience."

Thus began Fink's education in the claiming game, and by association, in the perils of ownership. "I used to be very hands on, I was around the barn all the time," he said.

Eventually, Fink struck up a partnership with Gottlieb and started buying better horses, especially for breeding. He met trainer Lou Goldfine, who helped upgrade his racing stock. "We've done very well over the years," he said.

At first, Guided Tour rated as one of Fink's dismal failures. Chicagoan Billy Teinowitz helped pick Guided Tour out of a yearling sale and put together an ownership partnership, of which Fink was a part from the beginning. Guided Tour is by Hansel, who never caught on as a commercial stallion, so the $102,000 he brought as a yearling was a big, risky bet. And by the time the horse was 2, apparently a losing one.

Guided Tour's first trainer, Steve Morguelan, telephoned Fink before the horse had started. "He told me this was the slowest, dumbest horse he'd ever seen. He said, 'You should run him for $17,500 [claiming] and get rid of him.' "

Guided Tour's career debut was a brutal 11th-place finish in a Churchill Downs maiden race. Morguelan, whom Fink still greatly respects, told Fink he felt bad taking money to train the horse, who was gelded shortly thereafter and wound up in the care of O'Callaghan, who rather quickly developed the same opinion of Guided Tour as Morguelan's.

There was no reason to think anything else. Guided Tour basically refused to get out of a strong gallop in his morning workouts. He still refuses, for that matter. Said Fink, "I understand that sometimes they have to wake the horse up to train him."

A strange thing happened. As he grew up, Guided Tour started to get better. It was racing that did it, bringing out a deeply buried competitive instinct. That and jockey Larry Melancon, who quickly became the only rider O'Callaghan would consider putting on Guided Tour in a race, and in most of his workouts.

It wasn't until Guided Tour won the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap in June, beating Captain Steve, then the top-ranked handicap horse in the country, that Fink realized just how good Guided Tour had become. There was a lesser stakes race in Maryland early this summer that O'Callaghan and Fink were leaning toward. Then, Fink said, "Niall called me up. He said, 'Don't hang up on me. We're entering in the Foster. He could be third there.' "

O'Callaghan and Fink say they have a great relationship. "We're on the same page when we're plotting and planning," O'Callaghan said. "He gives me the rein to take chances in the bigger races. That's exactly what happened in the Stephen Foster."

The Stephen Foster started a three-race Grade 2 win streak that's still unbroken. Fink and O'Callaghan no longer are spotting him with horses they know he can handle.

Now, Guided Tour is ready to face the best, and he will run to win.

Fink hates to admit it, hates having it mentioned in public, but his life has been affected by illness. He is feeling better, he says, but he can't travel to New York this fall. He will be back at Arlington on the afternoon of the Breeders' Cup glued to the monitor for the Classic. Asked if can still get excited about a horse race, specifically Guided Tour's Breeders' Cup, he said, "I might, if he's in a certain spot during the race."

Maybe in Fink's lucky spot.