03/05/2010 12:00AM

Neko Bay's story just needs an ending


ARCADIA, Calif. - The dynamics of a serious, high-quality racing stable usually requires there be one or two runners who carry the financial load while waiting for the rest to come through. In the case of Ann and Jerry Moss, their stable has floated along these past two years on the wings of Zenyatta, but they have got more than one horse. Really, they do. A whole boatload, in fact, or at least sometimes it seems that way, with so many mouths to feed. So, while waiting for Zenyatta's next roll to begin, if one of them would like to step up, they should feel free.

That "Who me?" you just heard from the Moss corner of the John Shirreffs shed row came from Neko Bay, a son of Giant's Causeway who has spent as much of his professional life on the sidelines as he has in serious competition. Four times Shirreffs has had to stop cold on Neko Bay and four times he has come back, each time showing a flicker of the promise he has harbored since his racing debut, four full years ago.

Neko Bay is now 7, which makes him a contemporary of such memorable individuals as Barbaro, Bernardini, Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Stevie Wonderboy, and George Washington. As racehorses, they have all faded into the misty past, leaving Neko Bay to represent the crop of 2003 as best he can.

His best will be tested to the max on Saturday when he joins the large brigade going postward in the 73rd running of the Santa Anita Handicap. No one needs to be told that this is a grand old race, older than the Woodward, the Gulfstream Park Handicap, or the Hollywood Gold Cup, and grand enough to be won by Hall of Famers Seabiscuit, Noor, Round Table, Ack Ack, Cougar II, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, John Henry, Alysheba, and Tiznow.

Ann and Jerry Moss are already part of that history. Their black bullet Ruhlmann won the Santa Anita Handicap in a fiery, wire-to-wire performance under Gary Stevens in 1990, at odds of 22-1 no less.

"The year before he won a mile race on the Santa Anita Handicap undercard and set the track record," Jerry Moss recalled. "Charlie always thought that maybe he should have run Ruhlmann in the Handicap that day instead."

That would be Charlie Whittingham, who brought Ruhlmann into his 1990 Santa Anita Handicap off a victory in the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park in late December and then a distant third to Criminal Type in the San Antonio Handicap, three weeks before the big one. Whittingham glanced at the tote board for the Handicap and huffed something about his horse getting no respect, then took the rubber band off the bankroll.

Neko Bay, fresh from his first stakes win in the San Pasqual Handicap, will be neither 22-1 nor setting a 45.80-second pace, as Ruhlmann did in his victory. After 13 races, spaced over 48 months, the old boy has finally settled on a running style that suits both his temperament and his surroundings, since it is best to save something for the end of a distance race over the Santa Anita synthetics.

"John always thought he had something," Moss said, referring to his trainer. "It just took this amount of time to develop it. We've had offers for him along the way, because he's so beautifully bred. We didn't sell, though, because I guess we always thought there was that something else there."

There didn't need to be much. Giant's Causeway gets Neko Bay a foot in any stallion barn door, and the female side is an embarrassment of riches. His dam, Brulay, is a half to Lemon Drop Kid. Her dam, Charming Lassie, is a half to Weekend Surprise. Among others, Weekend Surprise gave the world A.P. Indy and Summer Squall.

With such folks, they could have named the foal Mud. The Mosses, however, are convinced that horses respond, for better or worse, to what they are called by the people around them. Come naming time they put in the work, usually alighting upon a person or place significant to their lives. Neko Bay was such a place.

In January 2005, about four months before Giacomo carried the Moss colors to victory in the Kentucky Derby, they journeyed with family to the Antarctic Peninsula, with a Canadian-based guided tour that put boots on the ground, if they wanted. Their vessel was the MS Explorer, a cruise ship designed for sailing icy waters, but to get a closer look at smaller islands or go ashore Moss and his fellow travelers boarded 10-passenger motorized rubber boats.

"A lot of people see the Antarctic through the club room windows, having a martini," Moss said. "Like, 'Ah, there's an iceberg over there.' But Annie and her family are real outdoor types, so we got in the boats."

At one point, the head guide beckoned the Mosses. Apparently, he knew they were game.

" 'Come with me. We'll go to Neko Bay,' " Moss recalled. "We asked, 'What happens in Neko Bay?' He said, 'Well, every time I've been there something really incredible happens.'

"It was just Annie, me, and her brother in this boat for 10, chugging along through the icebergs, hanging onto the side," Moss continued. "We got to Neko Bay and there was nothing much happening. A little bit of snow falling. Temperature about zero. Then, all of a sudden, these amazing birds show up. And pretty soon the water starts moving, and these whales start jumping. We spent about an hour and a half, just mesmerized.

"So when our guide said that eventually something wonderful happens, it did. Let's hope that's the story of Neko Bay."