06/04/2004 12:00AM

Moscow Burning returns big dividends


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Moscow Burning, the California-bred filly who scored a front-running win in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park on May 29, is a former mid-level claimer from northern California whose owners nearly passed on buying her last summer.

Don Van Kempen, who owns Moscow Burning with Jeffrey Mariani and Michael Nentwig, remembers vividly how Moscow Burning won a $12,500 claiming race despite a rough trip at the Solano County Fair in Vallejo last July.

"We saw her leading by two, bump the rail, and win by five," Van Kempen said.

Van Kempen considered Moscow Burning to be a prospective claim, but was spooked when she reappeared for $25,000 at the Bay Meadows fair last August.

"How can I claim a horse that is triple jumping?" he thought to himself.

Van Kempen told trainer Casey Doyle that he wanted to wait and claim Moscow Burning when she appeared for less. Then he changed his mind. "This feeling came over me," he said. "Don't screw this up. Take this horse."

The investment has turned out to be one of the most remarkable claims in the nation in the last year.

Since being claimed on Aug. 7, Moscow Burning has won 5 of 10 starts and earned $456,100. She has not raced for a claiming price.

Turned over to trainer Jim Cassidy after the Del Mar meeting, Moscow Burning has won three stakes - the California Cup Distance Handicap last November, the Fran's Valentine Stakes in April, and the Sheepshead Bay, the most prestigious win of her career.

Cassidy's early opinions were mixed.

After the claim, Moscow Burning made one start for Doyle in an allowance race over 1 1/16 miles on turf at Del Mar. She raced in traffic and finished second by a half-length in a field of nine under Victor Espinoza.

"When I first got her, she was tough," Cassidy said. "She was a little rankish. Victor rode her and she almost took him through the rail in the post parade.

"She got stopped. It wasn't a smooth trip. Afterward, I said, 'Wow. She's all right.' "

Following that race, Moscow Burning reeled off three consecutive wins on turf during the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting - a one-mile allowance race for statebreds on Oct. 8, an allowance race at about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside course against open company on Oct. 25, and the California Cup Distance Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on Nov. 8.

In the Sheepshead Bay over a yielding turf course, Moscow Burning took the lead under Mike Smith, led by a length on the backstretch, extended that margin to three lengths at the eighth pole, and scored by a length over favored Spice Island. The Sheepshead Bay marked Moscow Burning's first win in a graded stakes and first at 1 1/2 miles on turf.

"The only thing I told Mike is 'I don't know if she'll like the yielding going, but you'll know in the first five strides,' " Cassidy said.

Moscow Burning was bred by Harris Farms and the Ken Maddy Trust. She is by Moscow Ballet, who stands at Harris Farms in Coalinga, Calif., for $3,000. Moscow Burning is Moscow Ballet's leading money winner this year at $307,600.

The female side of her family has been productive. Moscow Burning is by Burning Desire, a Mr. Leader mare who won the 1993 Black Swan Stakes at Fairplex Park, the highlight of a 24-race career.

The second dam, Cr?me Parfait, did not race, but the third dam is Office Queen, the champion 3-year-old filly of 1970.

Those bloodlines, combined with Moscow Burning's success on the racetrack, have made her a valuable broodmare. That is something that was far from the minds of Van Kempen, Mariani, and Nentwig when they submitted the claim last summer.