Updated on 09/18/2011 2:39AM

Mr. Sulu's fifth encore performance


Only A.L. "Red" McMurray knows why, of all the possible options, he stopped by the Fair Grounds barn of Josie Carroll in the spring of 2000 to ask if she'd be interested in training a 2-year-old he'd bred across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans in Folsom, La.

Carroll had taken out her trainer's license only six years earlier. She spent most of every season at Woodbine, in Canada, and McMurray was offering her a Louisiana-bred by the obscure sire Rail and out of a mare by the equally obscure sire I'm a Lyre.

At this point, sadly, it would be difficult for McMurray himself to say why. He suffered a stroke last April, and speech - McMurray's was clear, colorful, and candid - has become a struggle. But McMurray's choice speaks for itself. Carroll is back for another season at Fair Grounds, and with her is that 2-year-old of 2000, Mr. Sulu, a horse who should be the poster boy for Louisiana Champions Day.

Saturday, on the cusp of his ninth birthday, Mr. Sulu is slated to start in the Champions Day Turf for the sixth straight year, and he has a legitimate shot at his fourth win in that race. Mr. Sulu, who first raced on the Fair Grounds turf course six years ago, won his first Champions Day Turf in 2001. In 2002, he opened up a huge early lead, but got caught just shy of the wire, finishing third by a neck. In 2003, the Turf was rained onto dirt, and Mr. Sulu still finished second. He won the race easily in 2004, and even a shift in venue to Louisiana Downs last season did not slow the Sulu Express: He won the 2005 edition by a half-length.

"It gets tougher to win every year, especially without getting a race into him first," Carroll cautioned on Tuesday, but experienced Sulu watchers will take that caution with a grain of salt. Carroll, who tested the waters of Southern California last winter, is a steady winner at Fair Grounds and in Canada, and she has done masterful work with Mr. Sulu.

He won last year's Turf without the benefit of a prep race, and she shifted his schedule during 2006 because last year's strange Fair Grounds season - conducted way up in the other corner of the state - changed the gelding's year-to-year routine. Mr. Sulu's most recent race was in mid-July on dirt at Fort Erie - he finished sixth of seven - a start Carroll gave Mr. Sulu only because she was looking months ahead.

"Last year, at Louisiana Downs, there weren't as many opportunities for him," Carroll said. "Normally, he does a lot of racing, then he goes to the farm in the spring, but I had to alter his routine a little. I was afraid I didn't have as much racing in him as an old horse needs to give him that much time off. That's why he stayed in training and we ran him. He came back in September looking the same as ever - fat and happy. Then he gets down to work."

Work is what Mr. Sulu takes. Check out Saturday's paddock shots and post parade before the Turf, and you will see Mr. Sulu's special headgear, a set of ear mufflers that keep him from getting worked up by the noise of the crowd or any other aural distraction. He also is fitted with a set of earplugs, not just for his races, but any time he leaves his stall. Daily gallops for Mr. Sulu are delayed until late morning, when training has nearly ended and there is little horse traffic out.

"He gets too competitive if there are other horses out on the track," said Carroll.

Mr. Sulu, in fact, seems to feel most at home out racing on the Fair Grounds turf course. He's started in 48 races and won 11 of them, and nine of those victories have come on the Fair Grounds grass. Carroll left him at Woodbine longer than usual this year, since Mr. Sulu was enjoying his work on the synthetic surface there. Tuesday, he had his Fair Grounds blowout breeze for Saturday's race.

"As long as he's sound and he's racing well, we're just going to enjoy having him," Carroll said. "When he starts to tail off, we'll find a home for him."

McMurray, reached by phone at his Folsom home Tuesday, preferred not to labor through a difficult telephone interview, but he still was able to communicate the important thing regarding Mr. Sulu.

"He's got the Canadian woman taking care of him, and he's in great hands," he said.