07/09/2009 11:00PM

This owner well groomed to enjoy success

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Trainers, quick, take a look down the shed row. Check out the grooms, those invaluable gatekeepers, and try to figure out which one just might be the next Marc Ferrell. Thank me later.

Ferrell was 17 when he was recruited out of a training course for stable help at Santa Anita Park by Don Ropp, Jack Van Berg's assistant at the time. It was 1987, and Alysheba had just won the Kentucky Derby, so you can say the energy was high around the Van Berg barn.

"I wasn't doing anything at the time, other than getting in trouble as a teenager," Ferrell said this week. "A friend told me about the program at Santa Anita, and since I'd grown up in Arcadia it seemed like a great deal."

Ferrell never got closer to Alysheba than feeding him a peppermint, but he walked hots and did other chores well enough to get a shot at the next rung on the ladder. In Van Berg's world, you earn that shot by first proving you can groom Big Jack's pony every morning before the boss rides out. Ferrell passed that test and was handed a string of four horses to groom.

"I learned a lot from Jack, and I'll forever be grateful for the opportunity he gave me," Ferrell said. "He paid a lot of attention to detail. There was no chance he was going to find any straw in that pony's tail."

After his term with Van Berg, Ferrell spent a year with trainer John O'Hara, after which life intervened. The young man completed his education, went into the world - and scored. Ferrell now owns a health care company that currently operates five Southern California hospitals and has earned enough along the way to fund his dream of one day getting back into racing, but this time as an owner.

By then, O'Hara was in business as Equine Prep, a racing, breeding, and sales consultancy. Ferrell was quick to seek his assistance. Last fall, O'Hara introduced Ferrell to the yearling version of Well Deserved at the Kentucky farm of her breeder, veterinarian Gary Priest.

"She was built like a colt, like a real athletic horse," Ferrell recalled. "I loved her disposition, and how she acted. We bought her and brought her back to California to prepare her for racing. She learned things easily, like horses who are considered above average. When she was training on the track she always wanted to be a step ahead of other horses."

Ferrell and a partner consigned Well Deserved to the Barretts sale of 2-year-olds last March, in Pomona. When she breezed a quarter in 20.80 seconds, they were encouraged that they might hit a home run. But then the realities of the economy intervened, and when the bidding stalled Ferrell exercised the option to buy out his partner. The hammer fell at $100,000.

"Her only problem was her size," Ferrell said. "Everything else about her is perfect. She was just on the small side. Since then she's gotten a little taller, she's much more muscular, and she still has that tenacity I saw as a yearling. She just loves to be a racehorse, and you can't buy that."

He did though, buy her twice, and on Sunday at Hollywood Park, Ferrell will be in attendance as Well Deserved goes postward as the favorite to win the $100,000 Landaluce Stakes at six furlongs, with Joel Rosario aboard.

The filly won her first two starts under the guidance of Dave Hofmans, including the Cinderella Stakes last month. It should be noted that Hofmans also got his start at the track as a groom, and has gone on to win three Breeders' Cup races and a Belmont Stakes. Clearly, this is not a bad career track.

Hofmans is not known, however, for his work with precocious 2-year-olds, although he did win a Hollywood Futurity with Siphonic and a Del Mar Debutante with Cindy's Hero. Cat's Cradle won a small stakes during the summer of 1994 at Del Mar, then took Belmont's Acorn the following spring. But these were exceptions, and intentionally so.

The Hofmans record is replete with mature stakes horses, answering to names like Alphabet Soup, Touch Gold, Awesome Again, Dramatic Gold, Northern Afleet, Adoration, and Greg's Gold. Races such as the Cinderella and the Landaluce were never really on his radar.

"There was a time I wasn't really in favor of the idea of running 2-year-olds much at all," Hofmans said. "It seemed like they were asked to do too much too early, and there were a lot of nice young horses who never had a chance to find out how good they could be.

"I've come to believe that racing at 2 can benefit certain horses, though, and actually make them stronger," Hofmans added. "It becomes a matter of good judgment to know which ones should be doing it."

It is Ferrell's intention to keep supplying Hofmans and his other trainers - including Ron Ellis, Peter Eurton, Mike Hushion and Steve Myadi - with live runners. Ferrell recalled a particular purchase of two horses last year from longtime owner-breeder Harry Rosenblum, who won the 1987 Hollywood Turf Cup with Vilzak. His trainer was Jack Van Berg.

"I asked him if he remembered Vilzak, and he said he had the Turf Cup picture right there by his desk," Farrell said. "I told him to look at the photo. Could he see that tall white kid in the ugly sweater?"

Rosenblum said yes, then Ferrell dropped the punch line.

"That's me," he said.

"Oh, my God!" Rosenblum replied. "And now you're buying horses from me?"