01/10/2007 12:00AM

Outfit's second year sees promise of growth, reward

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Louis Hodges Jr.
Teuflesberg, an $8,000 sale purchase as a yearling, wins the Sugar Bowl Stakes. His trainer, Jamie Sanders, has the colt entered in Saturday's Lecomte.

The thought has crossed the mind of more than one longtime Thoroughbred exercise rider: I could train these things myself.

That is the thought Jamie Sanders had, and with help from her fiance, Donnie Kelly, she has turned thought to action. Sanders and Kelly, with financial backing from the owner Gary Logsdon, went to yearling sales in 2005, assembling a collection of 2-year-olds for the 2006 season, Sanders's first as a trainer. And if nothing else, they have secured a true toehold in the game, coming up with two stakes-class animals, the colt Teuflesberg and the filly Pro Pink, both of whom are scheduled to race Saturday during Fair Grounds's Road to the Derby Kickoff Day.

Teuflesberg was one of seven entered in the one-mile Lecomte, Pro Pink one of 12 in the one-mile Tiffany Lass. The races are stepping-stones to the Louisiana Derby and the Fair Grounds Oaks, the top 3-year-old races in New Orleans.

Sanders and Kelly, both in their 30's, met in Kentucky, where Sanders, a Kentuckian, was an assistant to Nick Zito - for whom she worked 11 years - and Kelly, a Texan, an assistant to trainer Ronny Werner.

"I came from more of a classic horse background, working for Nick Zito, and he came from the 2-year-old background and the Quarter Horses in Texas," Sanders said. "It's just worked for us."

Work is a highly operative word for this couple, who still gallop many of their own horses even while dealing with the added burdens of training for themselves. Exercise riders do have some afternoon responsibilities, but basically when the racetrack closes for training in mid-morning, they're on their own. More is asked of an assistant trainer, but even then someone else ultimately is responsible for whether an operation sinks or swims. Making the leap from hired hand to king of the castle can be difficult.

"We kind of had this plan long-term that we were going to combine our talent and efforts and go out on our own," Sanders said. "It had been in the works about three years. It's a hard thing to do. Either people don't have the opportunity or the willpower or the guts to do it. It's a whole lot easier to work for someone else."

Sanders won only 9 of 139 races during 2006, but there are mitigating factors. First, she started her business from scratch, working almost exclusively with 2-year-olds while competing at major tracks like Churchill, Keeneland, and Saratoga. Moreover, she and Kelly have not been shy about throwing their horses into tough spots: Pro Pink finished second in a Churchill stakes race against colts nine days after winning her debut at Keeneland, while Teuflesberg raced in four graded stakes this summer before ever winning a maiden race.

Some might call this questionable management, but Teuflesberg, whose high-water mark was a close second to Scat Daddy in the Grade 2 Sanford, appears to have improved in the last of couple months, winning two straight races, including the Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds. And Pro Pink, after a somewhat unproductive autumn, seemed to be back on her game with a second-place finish to the good filly Total in the Jan. 1 Letellier Memorial Stakes.

"We're not afraid to take a chance, which is probably why our win percentage isn't that great," Sanders said. "We've been running against horses all year long that people have paid a million for."

Teuflesberg cost only $8,000 when Sanders, Kelly, and Logsdon bought him out of a yearling sale last fall. Pro Pink, graded stakes-placed, was a $25,000 buy. Clearly, these people have some sort of eye for a horse, and they got a good percentage of their stock to the races through the year. Kelly himself - with an assist this winter from a rider named Damon Smith - breaks all the yearlings the operation gets, and there are 25 freshly turned 2-year-olds already breezing lightly at the Folsom Training Center across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, giving the couple some 60 horses in all at the start of their second year in business.

They are driving a lot, going back and forth from racetrack to training center, and still riding a lot, too. But now there is no one to answer to but themselves and their owners.