01/27/2010 12:00AM

Owner knows years of sunshine


ARCADIA, Calif. - Long before someone came up with the idea of commingling the racing assets of California and Florida into a Sunshine Millions concept, Leonard Lavin had it nailed.

Year after year, Lavin would churn out fine product at his Glen Hill Farm, across the road from Florida's famed Ocala Stud, where Rough'n Tumble, sire of Dr. Fager, once did business. Lavin would then send the best of his runners to California, after which their names became known as Convenience, Relaunch, Uniformity, Header Card, Top Rung, Repriced, and Carload, among many others.

Lavin wasn't particular, though. He wanted to win races anywhere they offered a decent purse, which is why his Glen Hill silks are known from New York to Florida to his hometown of Chicago. In Lavin's most spectacular turn on the national stage, he won the 1994 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs with the gray mare One Dreamer, a daughter of Relaunch, and somehow managed the neat trick of presenting the trophy to himself. Lavin's Alberto Culver Co. was a longtime sponsor of the race.

Lavin's commitment to California extends to time well spent at his West Coast home in Rancho Santa Fe, not far from Del Mar. On Wednesday morning, though, he was reached in his Alberto Culver office, where he shows up every day in his role as the company's chairman emeritus.

"I'm in beautiful, sunny Chicago, where it's 5 above zero," Lavin said, although he sounded warm. "I'm looking forward to coming out, only I'll be watching the race at the Del Mar OTB."

The race he's talking about is the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf, to be run on Saturday as part of Santa Anita's half of the bicoastal series with Gulfstream Park. Glen Hill Farm will be represented by Closeout, a 5-year-old mare who turned in a sharp performance over the Santa Anita grass last fall when she ran second to Tuscan Evening in the Las Palmas Handicap. Closeout has finished first or second in 10 of 15 starts, while winning the Pucker Up at Arlington and the Locust Grove at Churchill Downs.

Having turned 90 last October, Lavin's got the right to watch the race anywhere he pleases. He is also welcome to wax nostalgic, since his racing life began in the mid 1960s, a few years after he took Alberto Culver public. Only a handful of American owner-breeders have been at it as long.

"We've bred 60 stakes winners, an enviable record in itself," Lavin proudly noted. "I turned over the reins of Glen Hill to my grandson Craig Bernick a couple of years ago, and we had once of our best years in 2009. More important, I should say his name is Craig Lavin Bernick."

Handing the operation Glen Hill to a member of his family is in keeping with Lavin's lifelong philosophy. His late wife, Bernice, was his chief partner in the creation and success of Alberto Culver. His daughter Carol (Craig's mother) is chairman of the Alberto Culver board.

In terms of his Thoroughbred business, Lavin has used a number of trainers through the years, including Paddy Gallagher and Tim Yakteen currently in California. But his ties with Texas branch of the Proctor family run deepest, through the brothers Allan and Willard, and Willard's sons, Tom and Hap.

"I miss the knowledge of the old-time trainers," Lavin said. "They loved horses. That was the most important thing. Nowadays, frankly, they're all businessmen. Vets get called in too soon. The trainer becomes a medical assistant.

"Here's what I mean," Lavin went on. "I was watching a Kentucky Derby with Proctor" - he was referring to Willard - "and after the race, he turned to me and said, 'I just want to tell you, Mr. Lavin, I never would have won this Derby with that horse, because I never would have run him. He's lame, and there's no two ways about it.' Sure enough, that horse never ran again."

Tom Proctor trains Closeout, while his father trained her sire, Repriced. The mare is also blessed with the blood of Relaunch, winner of the 1979 Del Mar Derby, who died in 1996 at age 20.

"He's the best male horse I ever had," Lavin said. "If he'd have been sound there's no telling how far he have gone. It was his ankles, all the time. But still he ran against Spectacular Bid and John Henry, and they knew they'd been in a race."

Relaunch set up Spectacular Bid's world record 1:57.80 for 1 1/4 miles in the 1980 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita with a mile split of 1:32.80. The next month, in the 12-furlong San Luis Rey on the grass, Relaunch carried level weights against John Henry and finished second by 1 1/2 lengths.

"After that race," recalled Lavin, "Jimmy Kilroe came up to me and said, 'If that horse was sound, you'd have the greatest horse since man.' "

As head of the racing department, Kilroe was like that, making sure people felt good about their horses in the face of noble defeat. But Lavin knew what he had. Besides One Dreamer, Relaunch also lays claim to 1986 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Skywalker, and became known as a coveted sire of broodmares like Deep Discount, the dam of Closeout.

"We're planning to close out the field," Lavin deadpanned, and he has the mare to back him up.