02/28/2008 1:00AM

Owner sold on Seminole Native


ARCADIA, Calif. - It looks like owner Alex Venneri has a case of blind optimism.

Venneri looks at the field for Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap and is unfazed that his Seminole Native has been largely dismissed by experts. Seminole Native will carry 113 pounds, the lowest of the 14 starters. He is 30-1 on the morning line, and is likely to be a higher price at post time.

Fine, Venneri says. That means the winning mutuel tickets will be more valuable, an added bonus for his friends and family who will crowd into the winner's circle if his horse pulls an upset.

"I have a funny feeling this horse belongs," Venneri said last weekend.

"It's a tough race, but I wouldn't be surprised if we run in the top three. No one has ever given him a shot."

Seminole Native is one of two California-breds in Saturday's Big Cap, along with Celtic Dreamin. Neither is considered a leading contender in a race that was won by the California-bred Lava Man in 2006 and 2007.

Seminole Native will be after his first stakes win in the Big Cap, and even Venneri admits it's a tough race to reach that milestone.

But when Seminole Native closed from 11th in a field of 12 to finish third in the Sunshine Millions Classic for California-breds and Florida-breds over 1 1/8 miles on Jan. 26, Venneri saw an opportunity. He was eager to try Seminole Native over the Big Cap distance of 1 1/4 miles.

"If the track plays to closers, he will run his race," he said.

Seminole Native ran primarily on turf in 2006 and most of 2007, and has blossomed on synthetic tracks. In his last four starts, all on the synthetic tracks at Santa Anita or Hollywood, he has not been worse than third, earning $198,720. A winner of 4 of 17 starts and $308,300, Seminole Native has won twice in the last year - an allowance race over a mile on turf at Hollywood Park last May and an allowance race on the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park last December, his last start before the Sunshine Millions.

Jorge Gutierrez has trained Seminole Native for most of his career.

"I think we'll see a better race from the Sunshine Millions," said Gutierrez said. "I thought I gave him too much time off before the Sunshine Millions. We kind of caught up after that.

"He's carrying great flesh, and his coat is unbelievable. He does a lot in the morning. He keeps himself pretty fit. I think we'll be able to get a piece."

A 6-year-old gelding, Seminole Native is by Lil Tyler out of Lake Okeechobee, who is by Magic Prospect. Seminole Native was bred by Cal Fischer's Madera Thoroughbreds, who campaigned him in partnership with the E Z Eight Racing Stable and Richard Henig for the gelding's first five starts.

Venneri replaced Fischer in the partnership in February 2006, and Gutierrez joined the partnership in March 2007, after the gelding had been transferred to trainer Doug O'Neill for two starts.

Venneri and Gutierrez account for 80 percent of the current ownership, Venneri said.

Venneri, 45, has expanded his Thoroughbred holdings in the last five years. He is breeding several mares to Kentucky stallions this year, has a few mares in California, and is offering a few horses through partnerships at 2-year-olds in training sales at Barretts in March and May.

The owner of a mortgage company, Venneri has 40 horses in training with Gutierrez, Marty Jones, O'Neill, Clifford Sise, and Steve Sherman.

"I nibbled into it," Venneri said of his participation in racing. "Five years ago, I said, 'I'm going to do this.' I have to do it right."

Last year, one of his top runners was Super Freaky, owned in partnership with Pablo Suarez. Super Freaky won the Providencia Stakes and La Habra Stakes.

Advised by Tom Hudson, the manager of Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, Calif., Venneri recently acquired the stakes-winning California-bred mare Lady Gamer and plans to breed her to Speightstown, he said. He owns Lake Okeechobee, who is being bred to Aragorn, and has bought a share of the racehorse Mr. Wolverine, who will start in the Crystal Water Handicap on March 16.

"I like playing the mare game," he said. "My plan is you don't have a great mare, you have to have a great sire."

Venneri's real-estate mortgage business is in La Canada, Calif., not far from Santa Anita. Along with the real estate industry, Venneri's mortgage business has taken a downturn, going from 50 agents to 18, he said.

"It's a cyclical business," he said. "If you didn't make enough money when it was good, you don't deserve it."

Sounds like the horse racing business.