10/13/2004 11:00PM

Old Topper a guaranteed success


ARCADIA, Calif. - Usually when someone offers a money-back guarantee, it's not worth bothering to get the item to begin with. It's the staple of late-night television hucksters. Chia pets. Ginsu knives. The Clapper. That sort of stuff.

Here was Tom Stull's offer: I guarantee my stallion Old Topper will be the leading freshman sire of 2-year-olds in the state. Now how much would you pay? Don't answer! Because if he's not, you get your money back.

"I decided to put my money where my mouth is," Stull said. "I wanted to show I was committed to the horse."

The commitment has proven well-founded. Old Topper is indeed California's leading first-crop sire, with earnings of $274,901, twice as much as second-place Muqtarib. That lead could increase on Saturday, when Old Topper's undefeated 2-year-old son Top Money, a homebred who races for Stull and wife Debbie's Tommy Town Thoroughbreds, goes for his fourth straight victory in the $125,000 California Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting.

There are still 2 1/2 months go to in the year, but barring the unforeseen, Stull will hit the trifecta - he will own the leading money-earner by Old Topper, Old Topper will be the leading first-crop sire in the state, and Stull won't have to refund one dollar of the guaranteed money to those who bred mares to Old Topper the past two years.

"I don't know how much I was on the hook for," Stull said. "I didn't want to look. I imagine it was just under $200,000."

Old Topper stacks up well against all sires of 2-year-olds in California. He is fourth overall, behind the established stallions Swiss Yodeler, Lord Carson, and Souvenir Copy. He is also 12th nationally among all first-crop sires.

Old Topper, 9, in the spring completed his fourth year at stud. According to Stull, it is the most difficult time to promote a stallion because the allure of him first going to stud has long passed, yet his first runners have yet to race. That was why he hit on the idea of the guarantee, which was made to clients who bred mares to Old Topper in the spring of 2003 and 2004.

"I first made the offer last year. I felt confident, so I did it again," Stull said. "Everybody who saw his first couple crops of horses said they loved them. At first, I was probably the most hesitant to made the guarantee. You hate to get your hopes up too high. But everyone was confident his horses would run.

"When horses are out in the field, you can get a good feeling or a bad feeling watching them. His horses are all fairly aggressive, and they move nice. And his babies get better and better looking as they mature."

Old Topper was bred to 79 mares last year, 59 this year. Several of those mares are owned by the Stulls, but most were for outside clients who paid $3,500 a pop. Old Topper has just 34 registered 2-year-olds, a far smaller crop than most of this year's freshman sires. Because of his success, his popularity figures to increase. As will his price, but within reason, Stull said.

"We're going to raise it, but we'll try not to raise it by much," Stull said.

Old Topper, a son of Gilded Time who was trained by Noble Threewitt, raced through the end of 2000 and won $655,861 and 7 of 25 starts, including the graded Best Pal Stakes and Pat O'Brien Stakes at Del Mar.

"He's a handful," Stull said. "He's tough, but kind. He's not obnoxious. And as far as breeding, he's very good. He covers a lot of mares."

Old Topper was one of the first stallions acquired by the Stulls, who purchased the former Westerly Training center in Santa Ynez - property once owned by trainer D. Wayne Lukas and before that the late entrepreneur Fletcher Jones - in June 2000 and renamed it Tommy Town. Tom Stull, 56, has businesses in manufacturing, real estate, and software, and has owned horses for 20 years, but Tommy Town is the first farm he and his wife have owned. Other stallions who currently stand there include Lord Carson and Valid Wager.

Valid Wager was brought west from Florida. Through that transaction, the Stulls met trainer Mark Casse, with whom they have developed a friendship, and with whom they helped spread the word on Old Topper by sending three 2-year-olds to Casse to train at Woodbine. All three have won.

"We have a friendship, and he's good with 2-year-olds," Stull said. "We wanted to be sure the Old Toppers were in the right hands."

In addition to Casse, the Stulls have runners with Wally Dollase, Jeff Mullins, Cliff Sise, Ted West, and Adam Kitchingman, who trains Top Money. They ran Top Money for $40,000 in his debut. He won that day. Fortunately for Stull, he was not claimed, because he has won twice more since.

"We didn't want him to get claimed," Stull said. "But we ran him there because it's in the best interest of the stud to give them their best chance to win. We knew he could compete, but I don't believe we knew he'd be that good. He's been a lot nicer than anticipated."