12/23/2009 1:00AM

Presious Passion finds comfort zone up front


When a horse runs off to a huge lead, and the pack catches up to him, he's usually done. Engulfed. Toast.

But Presious Passion is defying that conventional notion. For nearly two years, competing at some of the highest levels of American turf racing, he has been speeding away to eye-popping leads, then somehow hanging in there, usually winning or earning a sizable check.

"He likes doing what he does," said Mary Hartmann, who trains Presious Passion, a 6-year-old gelding, for Frank and Patricia Generazio. "It makes him happy."

It also has racing fans marveling at his rare tactics. In his last race, the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf on Nov. 7 at Santa Anita, Presious Passion zipped away as usual, opening up a 10-length lead entering the stretch the first time and maintaining eight lengths on his closest pursuer passing the half-mile pole.

Early on in the BC Turf, race-caller Trevor Denman warned fans that Presious Passion and jockey Elvis Trujillo might have it all wrong. Even before going a quarter-mile in the 1 1/2-mile race, Denman said Presious Passion was "using up a lot of energy." By crunch time, as the field entered the last turn after a mile in a swift 1:34.58, he said Presious Passion was "coming back fast" and that his rivals were "breathing down his neck."

But since March 16, 2008, when he made the 26th of his 42 career starts in the Mac Diarmida Handicap at Gulfstream Park, this breakneck running style has been standard operating procedure for Presious Passion. Before then, everything was fairly normal, with his best races resulting in off-the-pace victories in the 2006 Jersey Derby at Monmouth Park, the 2007 Cliff Hanger at the Meadowlands, and the 2007 W.L. McKnight Handicap at Calder.

Then, out of the blue, he ran off as if hornets were chasing him out of his starting-gate stall in the 2008 Mac Diarmida. He opened up 10 lengths by the time he turned into the stretch the first time, and, after holding that margin to midway down the backstretch, he beat a steady fade, finishing 11th of 12, less than eight lengths behind the winner.

"He wasn't supposed to do it that day, but after he started doing it, he won his next start in the Pan American," said Hartmann, referring to the Grade 3 turf marathon at Gulfstream in April 2008. "So we've just kind of let him keep doing what he wants."

Presious Passion has been an anomaly ever since. He is scheduled to run Saturday at Calder in the McKnight, a race he won not only in 2007 using a more orthodox strategy but also in 2008, when he opened up four lengths early, was seriously challenged at a critical point, then drew off again to win by two lengths.

He almost pulled off that elusive trick in the BC Turf. By the quarter pole, his huge lead had dwindled to virtually nothing, and a gang of three appeared poised to roll right past him. But Presious Passion dug in tenaciously, and it was all Conduit, the odds-on favorite and defending champion, could do to prevail by a half-length. Presious Passion finished second, 1 1/4 lengths before Dar Re Mi, with Spanish Moon another 1 1/4 lengths back in fourth. In deep stretch, Denman said Presious Passion was "all heart," eventually calling him "ultra tough" as the field galloped out.

"He does have a big heart," said Hartmann. "I don't think he likes to lose."

Presious Passion, a Florida-bred by Royal Academy, will enter this next renewal of the 1 1/2-mile McKnight with 13 wins and earnings of $2,572,018. For Hartmann, a 51-year-old college graduate who opened her own public stable in 1997 after working for about 18 years under Jim Crupi in her home state of New Jersey, having a major player in the upper echelons of the sport has been the thrill of her career.

"Mary has done a great job with the horse," said Frank Generazio, a former longtime trainer who turned over Presious Passion to Hartmann when he retired in January 2006. "We were always a blue-collar kind of stable, and this horse has been competitive against all the high-profile outfits. This has been very, very exciting for us."

Besides his gritty Breeders' Cup effort and his two McKnight wins, Presious Passion has run some other incredible races. He won the 2009 Mac Diarmida by opening a seven-length lead, then holding on by a half-length. He did almost the same thing in the Monmouth Stakes last June, actually surrendering the lead before battling back to win by a nose.

But perhaps his most astounding performance came last July 4, when he won the Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth for the second straight year. Presious Passion opened a lead of about 20 lengths for much of the 1 3/8-mile trip and held on to win by two lengths.

"If you try to slow him down or take a hold, forget about it, he doesn't want to run like that," said Trujillo, a 26-year-old Panamanian who has ridden Presious Passion in his last nine races and will ride again Saturday. "He is a very different horse. When I get out in front, if it's 20 lengths, 10 lengths, whatever, I don't look back. I know he has a lot of fight and a big heart."

Generazio said he and Hartmann are trying not to get too far ahead of themselves in their plans but that they are considering a trip in March to Dubai for the Duty Free, assuming all goes smoothly Saturday in the McKnight and in the Jan. 30 Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream.

"Everything we get out of him from here on out is a bonus," said Generazio. "He's been an unbelievable horse for us."