03/31/2008 11:00PM

Polonius raises pair's low profile

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ARCADIA, Calif. - B.J. Wright first met Michael Pender when Pender was a 12-year-old kid running around a Glendale, Calif., ball field, playing flag football with Wright's son.

Wright got hooked into coaching the youngsters and made a quick assessment of Pender.

"I decided to make Pender my quarterback," he said. "He looked like he was a kid with confidence."

Thirty years later, Wright's confidence in Pender continues, but in a different sport.

Wright, 70, is the owner of the promising 3-year-old Polonius, the star of Pender's eight-horse California stable. Saturday, Polonius starts in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the colt's graded stakes debut. If Polonius wins or finishes second, Wright and Pender will consider starting him in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3, an idea that Wright admits leaves him "giddy."

"We're trying to stay normal," Wright said last weekend.

For Wright and Pender, that has not been an easy. The success of Polonius is a career highlight for Pender, 42, who admits that having a Triple Crown hopeful is new territory for a trainer who launched his stable in 2004. Until now, Pender has dealt mostly with low-level claimers.

The possibility of Polonius having a shot at the Kentucky Derby seemed unlikely just a few months ago. Polonius has won 2 of 3 starts and $79,020. He made only one start last year, winning a six-furlong maiden race on turf at Hollywood Park in July. While training for a start in the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar last August, Polonius was found to have a throat ulcer, and that ended his 2-year-old campaign. The colt spent three months at an equine clinic in Santa Ynez, Calif., last summer and fall and did not return to training until November.

"It was probably a blessing in disguise," Pender said.

Polonius returned to racing on Feb. 16, finishing a troubled fourth in an optional claimer on the hillside turf course. He made his next start in the March 15 Pasadena Stakes, a one-mile turf race at Santa Anita, leading throughout and winning by four lengths.

"He just galloped around there," Pender said.

The win was Pender's first in a stakes, and confirmed Polonius's ability on turf. How he will fare on a synthetic main track on Saturday, or a dirt track at Churchill Downs, is unknown, although he has the breeding to handle dirt. Polonius is by Broken Vow, a Grade 2 winner on dirt, and out of a Red Ransom mare, Word o' Ransom.

"If he does as well as we think he can, we'll be a threat," Wright said of Saturday's race. "Our question is, Can he handle the ground? He deserves the chance."

Wright paid $150,000 for Polonius at the 2007 Barretts March sale of 2-year-olds in training after extensively studying the catalog and whittling his choice down to 12 horses. In the end, he chose Polonius because of the colt's workouts and pedigree.

The $150,000 was a hunk of money compared with what he spent in his introduction to Thoroughbred ownership. The first horse Wright bought, way back in the early 1960s, cost him and two partners a grand total of $1,000.

"She didn't do anything," he said.

Wright later bought a $5,000 claimer for $5,500 privately and only later realized that the "deal" was not really a "deal."

Fast forward 45 years, and Wright has put those days behind him. After dabbling in the sport for decades, Wright decided a few years ago to make a more substantial investment in racing in search of success at a higher level.

"This was my first foray into more expensive stock," he said of Polonius. "I was going to get out of the business or improve mightily the quality of my stock. You don't get lucky with cheap horses. At one time, I had 27 cheap horses."

Currently, Wright has eight horses in training, five with Pender and three with Marcelo Polanco at Santa Anita. A native of Kentucky, Wright owns a water purification business in Pasadena, Calif., that has 70 employees. He was reunited with Pender after they saw each other at the races a few years ago, when Pender was building his stable.

Pender began putting together a claiming partnership in 1988 while working on his master's degree in psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. After he finished school, Pender found he could not leave the racetrack behind.

"The game kept pulling me back," he said.

Pender had his best season last year, winning 12 races from 77 starters and earning $244,690. As recently as last week, Pender was starting cheap Thoroughbreds at Los Alamitos, which primarily offers Quarter Horse racing.

"I'm trying to move away from that," he said.

Having a Kentucky Derby hopeful would qualify as a change.