03/11/2007 11:00PM

Paying attention to detail and selective acquisition the cornerstones of her program

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Trainer Dove Houghton is off to an excellent start in 2007, thanks in part to Belly Rub, a 3-year-old colt who is unbeaten in two New York starts and should continue to get his trainer attention outside Laurel Park, where Houghton is based with a 22-horse string.

Belly Rub, a New York-bred son of Buddha, won his debut by 1 1/4 lengths over a next-out winner and then returned to beat allowance company by a neck in a race where the margin of victory in no way showed his superiority. He basically raced in trouble for five furlongs of the six-furlong contest, found running room outside in the stretch, and rallied strongly to win with something left.

"I received a call the next day, where the caller asked if next time the colt would be asked to jump the rail and swim the infield lake to get the money," said Houghton, 40, who began galloping horses in her native South Carolina at 15 and learned many of her lessons working for trainers Carlos Garcia and Tony Dutrow. "I think if this colt was asked, he'd do most anything. He's just a class horse and is very easy to be around. Anyone could train him."

Houghton, clearly a bit modest, took on her own string of runners late in 2004 when her employer, Dutrow, left Maryland for bases in New York and Philadelphia. In 2005, Houghton won with 16 of 68 runners (23 percent, $2.34 return on investment) and followed it last year with a mark of 27 for 152 - a slight dip from a percentage standpoint that she attributes to taking on too many horses perhaps a bit too soon. This year, she's already won with 8 of 28 starters (28 percent) and bettors have to love her $4.13 ROI.

"I'd say the strength of our stable is attention to detail," Houghton said. "I'd bet that in the 200-horse stables attention to detail can get lost a little bit - things like checking horses' shoes and hooves constantly. We are under one roof in a 30-horse barn and I go over everything myself and with a staff that stays on top of things.

"We had a horse recently that would've been a favorite, and she coughed the morning of the race - we scoped her and she showed some mucus. It wouldn't have killed her to run, maybe she could've run second or third, who knows? But, she probably wasn't 100 percent. I like to win, and I think the betting public can count on my horses going over there at 100 percent and with their best chance to win."

Houghton still gets aboard two or three horses a day, and she said she believes it's an edge in keeping her finger on the pulse of her racing stable.

"Sometimes by watching or listening to your riders you might not be certain about something, but when you get on a horse's back you can feel it," she said. "And when you work for great trainers like Carlos Garcia or Tony Dutrow, you really get a feel for what a horse should be doing."

Claiming and buying young horses are the primary focus of the Houghton operation, and for now her strategies have worked.

"Glen Gaddy really got me started by putting money in my account to claim and to also buy at auction," Houghton said of one of her owners. "A horse like My Guy, who we bought at auction for about $15,000, won a race with, and then sold for six figures, was a real confidence booster for my whole program and brought plenty of partners on board.

"In claiming, it's a collaboration with owners and we do our research - pedigree, watch replays, look for horses that might stretch out in distance. We're selective in who we claim from and don't want to take from people we believe aren't good caretakers because you might get a horse that is spent. The top trainers - like Scott Lake, John Rigattieri - take care of them, run them where they can win, and keep their stock in good racing shape. We generally look for young horses and not the older, warrior types that go from barn to barn."

Highlights for Houghton include winning a $75,000 stakes last year with Spirited Game ($35), who has since been retired and bred, and developing Belly Rub, a horse she "had to have" and bought privately for $65,000, a sum outside the $15,000 to $50,000 range she generally looks to spend on acquisitions.