04/27/2006 12:00AM

One last wish? One last win


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Just for a moment, put yourself in Fred Duckett's place:

You're 80 years old and stuck in a hospital bed, still going one-on-one with the melanoma that has been after you for a year. You can't golf, even though you would dearly love to pick up the sticks one more time, and you can't throw a line in the water, somewhere off the San Diego coast, because right now one of those big fellas would probably pull you in.

Time, as they say, is running out, and all the wealth in the world, derived from a lifetime of business success, won't make much of a difference. You're stuck in this hospital bed, watching soap operas and bad commercials, and then it hits you:

A racehorse. Maybe even a winner. Yep, that's just what the doctor ordered.

It's not like it hadn't happened before. Duckett, a native of Los Angeles, had fallen in with fast racetrack company back in the 1980's and come up smelling good in partnerships that included such horses as Forzando, Yashgan, Valley Victory, Kadial, and Nostalgia's Star. Among the races they won were the Metropolitan Mile, the Oak Tree Invitational, the Strub Stakes, the Hawthorne Gold Cup, and the Coaching Club American Oaks.

And so it was that Fred Duckett, founder of The Fish Market chain of popular West Coast restaurants and developer of some 57 shopping centers, delivered the word to two of his longtime racing partners, Sherwood Chillingworth and Richard Dick, when they paid a visit to his hospital bedside at Scripps La Jolla. Find me a horse, could you? Get me Paddy Gallagher, if you can. No, I don't care what color she is. But if she can run a little, I won't complain.

These stories, of course, never have a happy ending. Fred Duckett, whose middle name should have been "Lucky," passed away on the evening of Monday, April 10, at his home in Rancho Santa Fe. But not before . . .

* He was able to savor the sight of his Rancho Santa Fe neighbor Phil Mickelson winning the Masters on Sunday, the 9th.

* He got to spend a little time in the company of Jack Robbins, president of the Oak Tree Racing Association and his close friend of more than 30 years.

* And, yes, he won one more horse race.

Chillingworth and Dick left the hospital that March afternoon and in short order called Gallagher, who had been assistant to trainer John Sullivan when Duckett and his partners won the 1985 Met Mile with Forzando.

"We asked Paddy to try and find us a horse who was ready to win a race," said Chillingworth, Oak Tree's executive director. "He came up with a filly in his barn named She's Some Wagon. So we struck a deal with her owners, got the paperwork transmitted and signed, and even came up with a set of silks for Fred, all with the help of a lot of people."

Duckett's condition was deteriorating, and he was not aware that She's Some Wagon took to the track at Santa Anita on the afternoon of March 25 in a $32,000 maiden claimer under Kent Desormeaux. Off at odds of 1-2, she parked by 5 1/2 lengths.

"We had the tape of the race FedExed that day to Fred in the hospital," Chillingworth said. "He came around a couple days later, and he must have watched it 10 times without stopping. I guess the message is, for a guy who had everything, nearing the end, his interest was in one more horse race."

"He had a life lived with luck," Jack Robbins said this week. "We used to call him 'America's guest,' and he never failed to pick up a tab. Wherever we went with Nostalgia's Star - New Orleans, Chicago - he made golf appointments for us, dinners at the best restaurants. The night before he ordered the painting, he took us to the 21 Club in New York."

Ah, yes. The painting. Duckett commissioned the renowed equine artist Anthony Alonso to portray Nostalgia's Star standing in the Belmont Park walking ring, flanked by trainer Jay Robbins, Duckett and his wife, Patty, and co-owners Jack and Maggie Robbins and Tom and Mary Jane Hines. Duckett had fond memories of Belmont, especially after Nostalgia's Star finished second there in the 1987 Marlboro Cup behind Java Gold, beating Gulch and Polish Navy in the process.

"How's that painting coming?" wondered Jack Robbins, a notorious needler, a couple months after learning about the project.

"I had to send it back," Duckett replied. "He didn't have me tall enough."

Another month or two passed, and this time Robbins had the good sense to ask Patty Duckett for an update.

"We had to send it back again," she told him. "Fred didn't think his neck was long enough."

"Vanity was never an issue with Fred," Robbins said this week. "But for some reason it was in this case. I guess he was just very proud of the whole thing with the horse. They finally kept the painting, and I'm going to bring it out at Fred's memorial service on Monday. He's about three times bigger than anyone else in the picture."

Based on the life Fred Duckett lived, that sounds just about right.