05/10/2006 11:00PM

Old pros like Stormy Do full of competitive fire

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Barbaro could win the Triple Crown, and still not match some of the accomplishments of the veteran claimer Stormy Do.

"He is the granddaddy of them all," trainer Scott Lake said. The reference is almost literal.

At age 13, Stormy Do is going strong. Despite an inventory of age-related ailments, Stormy Do has already won three races this year at Philadelphia Park, where he has been banging around the $10,000 claiming ranks through winter and spring.

What makes a horse want to beat you at age 13? "What makes Donald Trump, Donald Trump?" Lake responds. "What makes Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan? It's something that superior athletes have - they want to do it, and he thrives on it."

Stormy Do is on target for his best season in terms of wins. Eight starts into the year, he already has three wins, on the heels of five-win seasons in 2004 and 2005. Stormy Do has won 13 of his last 34 starts. He is not alone among equine geriatrics.

All across North America, 13-year-olds race and win, including seven that started in May alone. Major Zee (19 for 73) won a $4,000 claiming race May 6 at Fort Erie; J J S Laddie (16 for 108) won a $2,250 claiming race May 6 at Lethbridge in Alberta. Apache Twist (4 for 39) finished second in a 3 1/4-mile steeplechase race May 6 at Great Meadow in Virginia.

Most are geldings, including Imperial Wind, whose 114th career start (20 wins) was a fifth-place finish in a $3,200 claiming race May 5 at Fairmount Park. Of the 13-year-olds who started in May, Carla Sparkles is the only mare. She made her 129th start May 8 at Mountaineer Park, finishing fifth in a $5,000 claiming race.

Stormy Do, who still earns Beyer Figures in the 80's, tops them all. He made his debut at Calder on Nov. 11, 1995, two weeks after Cigar won the Breeders' Cup Classic, and while Stormy Do did not reach graded-stakes class, winning has always been a habit.

Overall, he has 25 wins from 114 starts, earnings of $524,716, and he is far from finished.

"When he says enough is enough, I'm going to be the one to retire him," Lake said.

Not yet. Lake previously trained Stormy Do last fall (3 wins, 7 starts), and re-claimed him from a third-place finish Sunday for owner Michael Salzo. The plan is to race him in June, only after Lake addresses Stormy Do's physical issues. Getting there will be half the fun.

"He's got knees," Lake said. "He's got huge ankles. He's funky behind. He's a bleeder. He's got a list so long, but when he sees you coming with the tack, he gets sound and he blows himself up. He thrives on [racing and training]."

It is obvious. To last that long, a horse must enjoy his job. Plenty still do. Full Moon Madness, an 11-year-old California-bred gelding, won a stakes April 9 at Turf Paradise, and finished third in a stakes on Saturday at Canterbury. He career record is 18 for 65, with earnings that exceed $1.2 million.

The 12-year-old gelding Heavens Throne finished fourth Sunday at Louisiana Downs in his 105th start (24 wins). The 12-year-old gelding Blues Away finished fifth Tuesday at Prairie Meadows in his 117th start (20 wins).

Bruce Headley won graded stakes with 9-year-olds Kona Gold and Softshoe Sure Shot and 8-year-old Son of a Pistol.

"The old warriors I've had, they were runners to begin with," Headley said, adding that the key to their longevity was giving them time to recover when they were injured.

The point is illustrated in past performances of Headley runners, which are peppered with layoff lines. Kona Gold made 30 starts; he had 14 layoffs of at least two months. Son of a Pistol raced 31 times; he had 12 layoffs.

Stopping at the right time does not make them run any faster, but a layoff allows a horse to fulfill his potential.

"It's not how fast, it's if they last," is one of Headley's pet phrases. When he buys horses, Headley said he looks for "big bone, deep girth, thin neck and a small head." But the intangible element of class cannot be measured.

"It is the unseen thing, and it's something they are born with," Headley said. "Hopefully what you can't see . . . is there. It's something inside them that nobody can see."

Even a $10,000 claimer "has class" if he tries his best, and tries to win. Bill Spawr was the last trainer to race 9-year-old gelding Bluesthestandard, who won 19 of 47 before he was retired last month. Horses like Bluesthestandard, Spawr said, "want to win - they go out and lay their body down. They want to run; they have that attitude, that spirit."

Southern California exercise rider Chris Alpin sees a similarity between racehorses and humans. She said many veterans are "like professional athletes. If you're a competitor, it's in you for life."

A horse's competitive spirit often remains intact even on the downside of a career. Easy Grades finished second in the 2002 Santa Anita Derby, and was good enough to run 13th in the Kentucky Derby. The gelding is now 7, and while no stakes are in his immediate future, his class still shows through under the twin spires.

Easy Grades won a $10,000 claiming race March 19 at Hawthorne, and came right back May 2 at Churchill Downs to win for $15,000.

So what makes them tick? Pete Eurton trained veteran Cal-bred gelding Bonus Pay Day at his prime in 2002, when he won four allowance races. Eurton still marvels at Bonus Pay Day, who was claimed from Eurton in 2004. He broke down this March.

"You never know where the goodness of a horse comes from," Eurton said. "Who knows what makes them not get tired - their hearts, their lungs, their determination.

"Bonus Pay Day had a ton of fight. He did not want to get beat."

Although Eurton was talking about an old favorite, the same thing applies to Stormy Do, Bluesthestandard, and every other racehorse warrior.