04/14/2009 11:00PM

One guy who's not got Derby fever


ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that the cast of the 135th Kentucky Derby has been pretty well established, with the exception of a few extras to be added for background noise, let us pause a brief few moments to acknowledge the thousands of Thoroughbred foals of 2006 who will not be part of the stampede on May 2 at Churchill Downs.

The Pamplemousse and Old Fashioned, obviously, are chief among them. Both talented colts were passionately campaigned by the people involved, with the Kentucky Derby held high as the ultimate goal. Old Fashioned is off to the breeding shed, while hope lingers for The Pamplemousse to return someday as a racehorse. Either way, they will be remembered among the bravely wounded on the rocky 2009 Derby trail.

At the same time, there are any number of young colts who ran just poorly enough to be spared the Kentucky Derby experience without dashing hopes for bright futures. Among these is Massone, the third-place finisher in the Blue Grass Stakes last weekend and before that runner-up to Derby contender Chocolate Candy in the El Camino Real.

After finishing behind General Quarters and Hold Me Back at Keeneland, Massone caught the first available flight home to the coast and was cozy in his Santa Anita stall at the Ron McAnally stable by Wednesday afternoon. With $115,000 in graded stakes earnings and just 21 horses in front of him on the latest list of Derby contenders released by Churchill Downs, Massone certainly could have hung around Louisville, waiting for a last-minute spot to open in the gate. But then, he would have to be nominated first.

"Even if he'd won the other day, I don't think I would have run him in the Derby," said Lewis Figone, who races Massone under his Frankfurt Stable banner. "It's possible, but I really don't think the best horse wins the Derby very often. I think it's just a crowded race."

Don't get Figone wrong. Like any red-blooded American owner he would jump at the chance to win the Kentucky Derby with the right horse. He thought he was heading to the winner's circle 22 years ago with his Santa Anita Derby winner Temperate Sil. The challengers included Alysheba, Bet Twice, Gulch, Cryptoclearance, and favored Demons Begone, but none of them was coming up to the race any better than Figone's gray colt, who was trained by Charlie Whittingham.

"About a week before the Derby, he worked a mile in around 1:34," Figone recalled. "The next morning he woke up with a cough, and he was out of the race. Charlie stayed back there and helped Jack Van Berg win it with Alysheba."

Small consolation to Figone, but at least Temperate Sil recovered well enough to win the Swaps Stakes, then a Grade 1 event, during the summer meet at Hollywood Park. With earnings of $1.1 million, Temperate Sil was by far the most successful colt Figone ever raced, while Aube Indienne, winner of the 1994 Yellow Ribbon Invitational, was his best mare. His favorite horse, though, was Billy Ball, Temperate Sil's older half-brother.

"He could do anything - run on dirt, turf," Figone said. "He started nine times and won six of them. Quite a horse."

Billy Ball was named for Figone's childhood friend, Billy Martin.

"We grew up together in Oakland," Figone said of the mercurial major league manager, who was killed in a car crash on Christmas Day, 1989. "He wasn't much of a gambler, but he liked going to the races."

While Martin headed for baseball, Figone made a career of the trash collection business, from the ground up. These days, he answers to the title of president of Bay Cities Refuse Service, but, as he once told Sports Illustrated, "I carried garbage for 12 years, and I still have the aches and pains to show for it."

Racing, it seems, was in Figone's blood.

"My mother had horses, and I had an uncle who was a jockey," Figone said. "His name was Albert Gunari. He raced in the 30s with Georgie Woolf and them guys."

Like Billy Ball, Figone names most of his horses for friends, including Bob Massone. He has another promising colt named Ray Morrison, and the best older horse he's got right now is the stakes-winning Bonfante, as in Lloyd Bonfante. The four-legged Bonfante is among the West's most entertaining sprinters, with a fierce closing kick that has been effective on a variety of surfaces.

"He's coming back again soon," Figone said of Bonfante, who is also trained by McAnally. "He got sick about three months ago and needed some time."

Massone has been a project, with seven tries before winning his first race last November at Hollywood Park. As a son of Menifee and a grandson of Damascus, the colt's future seems to lie in the land of long races, which should give the pragmatic Figone and McAnally plenty of options before they plan their next move.

"He's a nice, sound, correct-looking colt," said McAnally, who has won just about everything in racing but a Triple Crown event. "So we'll let the ones with Derby fever go back there and knock each other around for awhile. Hopefully we'll have something left to pick up the pieces."