01/07/2010 12:00AM

Old-school graduate was top-class

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The sad, baffling death of retired trainer Cotton Tinsley earlier this week, from a fall down a deep ravine alongside a famous stretch of Southern California mountain road, reawakened some good memories of a fine man who placed his hands on more classy horseflesh than most folks could ever imagine existed.

Tinsley, 81, was the ultimate soup-to-nuts horseman, possessed of a demeanor that could tolerate both the frantic, vagabond lifestyle of the racetrack and the seasonal rhythms of the farm, where careers are hatched, or maybe botched, depending on the guy in charge.

The game is hung up on labels, though, so unless a man can point to a big, juicy pile of stats spilling from a shelf full of American Racing Manuals, he will either spend his days explaining away a thin public resume or else shrug, smile, and be content with the everlasting respect of his colleagues. Cotton Tinsley had a great smile.

You can just imagine that smile when he'd go home to his wife, Pat, at Fred Hooper's farm in Florida after showing the ropes to the young versions of Susan's Girl and Tri Jet, both foals of 1969.

You can imagine that smile as Cotton did a number on some of the best races of the 1975 Hollywood Park meet with the his-and-hers Hooper horses Beat Inflation and Joyous Ways.

Tinsley was never one to gloat, but you can easily imagine the pride with which he took the mature version of 1962 Kentucky Derby runner-up Crozier through the 1962-63 Santa Anita season, winning the six-furlong Palos Verdes on opening day, the seven-furlong San Carlos Handicap 10 days later, and then both the 10-furlong Santa Anita Handicap and the 8 1/2-furlong San Bernardino Handicap before the meet came to an end.

Crozier carried 128 pounds to win the San Bernardino. In the Palos Verdes he beat Olden Times, Rex Ellsworth's most versatile animal. In the San Carlos, Olden Times was second and Native Diver was third. Yeah, that Native Diver, who later set a world record for the distance. In the Handicap, the beaten included Derby winner Decidedly, champion Crimson Satan, and the horses who won the big race the year before (Physician) and after (Mr. Consistency). Crozier won it by 5 1/2 lengths, which is still the largest margin in the 73-year history of the race, equaled only by Best Pal.

The modest Tinsley took about as much credit for Crozier as he did for the brilliant Olympia, a product of his early handling at the Alabama version of Hooper's farm, or for Alhambra, Olympia's best son, who won the Hibiscus, the Arch Ward, and the Rumson, along with 20 other races over four seasons in the late 1950s, or for Susan's Girl, who emerged as the most accomplished mare of a golden age in the early 1970s.

"When you're on a farm, it's dangerous to get too high on a horse just because it stands out from the rest of the crop, even when you're getting good horses," Tinsley once told me. "But from the time Susan's Girl was a weanling, she stood out. In the paddock, on the track, wherever we had her, she was apart from the rest.

"I remember the first day she breezed," Tinsley went on. "She broke off about 10 lengths behind two other pretty nice colts and caught them before you knew it. She got a half on our deep three-quarter-mile training track in 49 at a time when 51 seconds was an excellent work and 53 was average. After that I never had any doubts she'd be something special."

Susan's Girl ran 63 times - 17 at age 6 alone - won 29 races, three Eclipse Awards, and a plaque in the Hall of Fame. Guess Cotton got that one right.

Hooper had a reputation for interchangeable trainers, which is why it is hard to remember whether John Russell or Ross Fenstermaker trained Susan's Girl when she was 3, 4, 5, or 6, or exactly when Tinsley took over from Ivan Parke with the main racing stable (it was 1957), or when he went back to the farm (mid-1960s), or when he went back to the track again. That was 1975.

What is crystal-clear, though, is the lasting affect that time spent with Tinsley had on a racehorse, wherever it happened. The late John Russell spoke to that very subject, some 22 years ago.

"I've never had better-broken horses than the ones prepared by Cotton," said Russell, who also had a stint training for the Phipps family. "His horses were always thoroughly exposed by the time they got to the track and settled in quickly.

"I've always felt that all horses have a certain amount of God-given talent and that we humans proceed to interfere with it along the way," Russell added. "Cotton did not interfere with the natural talent of his horses."

An Eclipse snub hits home

There were no real shocks or disappointments on the list of finalists announced for the divisional Eclipse Awards, which will be announced the evening of Monday, Jan. 18, in Beverly Hills.

Oh sure, I was a little surprised that Dancing in Silks made the final cut among male sprinters ahead of Fabulous Strike. But what the heck. Owner Ken Kinakin coughed up $180,000 to supplement Dancing in Silks to the Breeders' Cup Sprint and came away with the trophy. He deserves to take another bow at the dinner.

On the other hand, it was a shame that Magical Fantasy ended up on the outside looking in among the finalists for champion turf female. I still have trouble with one-shot Europeans elbowing aside a season-long body of work by an American campaigner. Yes, Midday beat Magical Fantasy on the square on the day in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. But before that, Magical Fantasy had won four straight prestigious West Coast events on grass. That should count for a lot, especially since the grass was real.