Updated on 09/17/2011 9:50PM

Odd couple turn up horse of their dreams

Benoit & Associates
Trainer Tom Tomillo and owner Bill Slevin saw Lord of the Game (above) rise from claimer to superhorse.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Chicago lies at the eastern edge of the Central Time Zone, which means during December night starts creeping in not long past lunch. The darkness seems to fall harder at Hawthorne Race Course, where the horses run amid a cityscape of oil storage tanks, a tin plant, and a waste management terminal.

Bill Slevin was there last Dec. 31, trying to figure out how to properly fill out a claim slip. Tom Tomillo, the trainer for the novice horse owner, had called from New Orleans the day before. He proposed that Slevin head to Hawthorne and drop claims on two horses.

"It's 3:30 in the afternoon, getting dark already," Slevin recalled, "and I look around the grandstand, and there's like nobody there, nobody. And I thought, maybe I'm the dumb guy in the room."

The horses were $10,000 maiden claimers. They were well bred, owned by WinStar Farm, and trained by Jimmy McMullen - and Slevin and Tomillo got both of them. There was a two-way shake for Baptistry, but Tomillo and Slevin, who races as Two Blondes Inc. - the blondes being his wife and daughter - were the only ones in for Lord of the Game, a first-time starter.

As Slevin looked on, Lord of the Game, the horse he just had bought, showed speed and led by about a length turning for home. Then the other horses stopped moving, or so it appeared, as Lord of the Game flew away from them in the stretch.

"Lord of the Game, cruising under the wire, won it by more than 15," the Hawthorne track announcer called.

Actually, it was 22 3/4 lengths, and it was no fluke. Lord of the Game proceeded to win four straight allowance races, and after finishing third in the National Jockey Club Handicap, he won the Grade 3 Hanshin Handicap at Arlington, and the Grade 2 Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows.

On Wednesday, Lord of the Game and his $349,000 bankroll were to leave Arlington and head for Saturday's $150,000 at Canterbury. Tomillo already has a Claiming Crown win, with Talknow in 2001.

"Talknow was an old beat-up claimer, but these horses both have the same temperament," Tomillo said. "They're mean, and this horse will run you over. He does everything like he thinks he's boss. It takes two guys to walk him, and it takes a strong rider to gallop him."

"He's got the heart," added Slevin. "He's got the heart of a champion."

Lord of the Game is the first horse Slevin had ever claimed. But Tomillo, 61, has been training for 38 years. Though his father was a jockey, Tomillo was driving a newspaper truck when he and a couple of buddies went in on a racehorse in the 1970's.

"The trainer, he turned out to be like a gyp guy - he's dead now, so we don't need to mention his name - and I was more or less elected to take over the horse," Tomillo said.

Thus began a long and occasionally successful career. Tomillo has won 1,383 races, and his career batting average is 9 percent. No longtime Chicago racing denizen can ever remember him going hungry, but there were lean enough years. In 1979, his stable went 17 for 193 with earnings of about $118,000. In 1986, the Tomillo barn was 47 for 533, with about $401,000 in purses. Tomillo never has operated on a big budget. Lord of the Game is his first graded stakes winner. He has claimed and claimed, and learned the hard way how difficult it is to come up with a really good horse that way.

"I've been in the claiming game a long time," Tomillo said. "Nobody ever sent me a stakes horse."

Slevin knew Tomillo from years back, and once had gone to the racetrack with some regularity, but it was in 2004 that he first decided to start playing at a different level. The two form an interesting team, sharing at least one thing - a love of zeppelin-sized cigars. Slevin is younger, tan, goateed, and self-made. He started buying and selling cars as a teenager. "I was ready to go off to school to Cornell, but I was making too much money to quit," he said.

Slevin races as a hobby, but doesn't just want to throw money at the game. Lord of the Game's earnings have gone back into new horses - Slevin has claimed 24 now - and Slevin is talking up a couple of recent 2-year-old purchases. "I told Tom that now we have to get to the Derby," he said.

Tomillo shakes his head sagely. He has seen enough horses pass through his outfit to know the odds of that. And late last winter, Tomillo was looking at things from the vantage point of a hospital bed in New Orleans - his longtime winter quarters - ill enough to wonder if he would ever get out. Just when he had mostly recovered, a blood vessel in his eye burst, and he temporarily was all but blind.

And now he is having his best season. Tomillo has already won 46 races, with purses approaching $1 million, and more and more often his claims have been panning out.

"I've claimed plenty of them that broke down running, but you don't go in there worrying," said Tomillo. "You go in there to get the horse, and all you can hope for is that he is what he is, that he's worth what you paid for him. You cannot get disappointed in this game - you cannot, or it's all over for you."

Tomillo says he has an affinity for "horses that have been off awhile, and especially first-time starters." The maiden claimers are a mystery, but if they have some pedigree, he believes it eventually will come out, even if it's in claiming races. But to take a maiden claimer, especially a first- or second-time starter, requires a leap of faith.

"It's a gamble, is all it is," said Slevin.

By claiming the two horses on New Year's Eve, Slevin and Tomillo hoped to land one that would be worth the $20,000 investment. How difficult is it to latch onto the right horse? Baptistry finished second the day he was claimed, but has gone on to lose seven times by a combined 139 lengths for Slevin and Tomillo.

"You can sit here and dream all day about claiming one for $10,000 that could make $300,000," said Tomillo. "But that's only dreaming."