Updated on 09/17/2011 2:05PM

Nebraska's ageless wonder horse


ARCADIA, Calif. - All you glamorous foals of 2001, you Derby dudes and darlings, step back for a second and give an old guy a turn in the sun.

Saturday marks another comeback for , at the ripening age of 13, as he attempts to win the Grasmick Handicap at Fonner Park for the ninth time in a career that dates back to the misty, distant days of the early 1990's.

When the stocky chestnut reappears at the tidy little Grand Island, Neb., track, he will be sporting a grizzled winter coat and the remnants of a well-earned haybelly. His hocks are arthritic, he has bursitis in his shoulders, and his trainer will be walking with a limp, not to mention the fact that his jockey, Newil Wall, is 56 years old.

But you know what? So what. This is Leaping Plum.

The folks at Fonner will be getting a fresh supply of Leaping Plum T-shirts. All day long, racetrack monitors will be showing highlight tapes of Leaping Plum's 70-race career, including his Grasmick victories of 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2003.

What, you might rightly ask, could have possibly happened in 2002? Lightning strike? Killer blizzard? Tornado on the turn?

Dr. Paul Miskimins, a dentist from Mitchell, S.D., owns Leaping Plum in partnership with Clyde Woods, an Omaha furniture dealer. Miskimins recalls the 2002 Grasmick as the day their old pro came up bone dry in the luck department. And since the Grasmick is a one-turn, four-furlong race, that pretty much means mistakes are not allowed.

"The horse outside him in the gate was acting up," Dr. Miskimins said Thursday from his clinic office. "He had to stand there for what seemed like four or five minutes, and I think he just dozed off."

Old guys will do that sometimes.

"So, he got himself left," Miskimins went on. "He went after them, and he was on his way to winning the race, anyway, when a horse inside him blew the turn. Newil did the right thing, stood up and took care of him until it was safe to go on. After all that, he still finished a real close third."

Order was restored last year when Leaping Plum resumed his dominion over the Grasmick at the age of 12. Finishing closest to him that day were Tonight Rainbow and Tate's Way, and both are entered to face him again Saturday.

Because of his age, special dispensation was required from the Nebraska Racing Commission so that Leaping Plum could compete at a legitimate track like Fonner Park. He has not raced since May 17, 2003, at the State Fair at Lincoln, after which he spent the better part of five months in a grassy Nebraska pasture, just being a regular horse.

"He was the first one on the grounds when they opened Fonner in November," said Joe Moss, the only trainer Leaping Plum has ever known. "We had a real good December, up through the middle of January, then the weather just socked us in - 20 below at one point. Just a week ago we had 20 inches of snow on the ground."

After three weeks of walking the shed row, Leaping Plum finally got a work last weekend. He needed it, Moss said, and he might be a step or so short for Saturday's race. But if that matters, then people just haven't been paying attention.

"The minute he's no longer competitive in these little stakes, we will retire him," Moss said. "I think we decided that about five years ago. This time, before bringing him back, we gave him a nuclear scan just to make sure. Being 13, he's going to have a little arthritis. But he's in better shape than his trainer, because I just blew a knee."

Institutions like Leaping Plum are few and far between. They provide a fresh supply of lore to the game, for they represent the best of what a Thoroughbred is meant to do.

Leaping Plum is not a novelty act, like a horse with a desperate losing streak, nor is he a faded star with 150 starts who has hit the bottom of the barrel. He is a thoroughly professional, Kentucky-bred warrior with 31 victories and nearly $400,000 in earnings spread out over 10 seasons, all of them spent at a consistent level of class.

To their credit, his people have never let him be anything else, pulling him from training whenever he needed a break. Leaping Plum eventually will be retired to the Miskimins family ranch near the town of Brookings, on the eastern side of South Dakota. He has a pal waiting there, an old saddle horse, and more pasture than any animal could wish for. And yet, there's nothing worse than early retirement - for man or beast - as long as the fire still burns.

"He still loves to train, loves to work, and just kind of shines around the barn," Moss said. "We don't really feel like we're putting him out, because he likes his job so much. But when that day comes, there will be no regrets. We owe it to him, and he doesn't owe us a thing."