09/28/2007 12:00AM

Publisher finds horses are soul-satisfying

EmailHalf a century ago, when he was more innocent in the ways of the world, Little Petey was visiting his grandparents' farm near Montreal.

He liked the countryside and would explore as boys are wont to do. One day, walking down a hill, he was in awe over one farm in particular. It was unlike any other in the area, with a long white fence, a really nice house. He noticed there weren't piles of manure like at other farms. In fact, it was pristine. He asked who owned that farm.

"Oh, that's Mr. Ryan," he was told. "He's a gentleman farmer."

"What's that?" Petey asked.

"Oh, he doesn't work the land, and he doesn't even live there. He just visits it when he likes."

"I like that idea," Petey said.

The years went by and Petey grew into a man. He started some businesses, and had his ups and downs. After some success, he joined a syndicate in the mid-1980s and bought some yearlings under the ownership name of Five Star Stable. One of them, Express Star, won some minor stakes races at Calder and Petey was hooked.

He and his partners started buying more horses and bigger shares, especially as Petey's other businesses flourished, and started getting into the breeding end of the horse industry. One day a partner said, "You should really buy a farm."

"That's when I knew I was closing in on my childhood dream," said Little Petey, who today is 63 years old and living in Boca Raton, Fla., with a farm in Ocala.

Nowadays, when kids go past his farm, their parents can tell them that it's owned by a gentleman farmer. But what they probably don't know, since the owner doesn't have his name on a shingle or any name at all for the farm, is that Peter Vegso is that gentleman farmer. And even if the name doesn't ring a bell, they're probably familiar with the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books that Vegso's Health Communications Inc. has published since 1993.

Vegso was in Las Vegas this past week for the 13th annual Counseling Skills Conference, which is sponsored by one of his other companies, U.S. Journal Training Inc., which helps addiction counselors treat patients and publishes the trade magazine Counselor. He was also doing publicity for HCI's latest release, "Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up?" which is in a Chicken Soup-like series along with "Why Do Dogs Drink Out of the Toilet?" and "Why Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?"

Vegso said his longtime love of horses and farms made it a natural to use them as subject matter. The first "Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul" came out in 2003 and sold 400,000 copies, Vegso said, with a sequel in 2006.

"When we did the first Chicken book on horses, we were surprised that a lot of stories didn't come from the Thoroughbred world," Vegso said. "We got a lot of stories from the show horse people and Quarter Horse world, plus a lot more from young girls who wanted to get a pony. But we finally got some great Thoroughbred stories as well."

"Why Do Horses Sleep Standing Up?" is just one of the 101 questions answered by co-authors Marty Becker (the regularly featured veterinarian on "Good Morning America"), Audrey Pavia, Gina Spadafori, and Teresa Becker. Racing fans might be most interested in their treatment of queries such as "Does a horse know he has won a race?" and "Why do horses wear blinkers?"

The book is similar to the Chicken Soup series as it's more like an anthology that can be read by jumping from chapter to chapter in any order.

Since his humble beginning as a horse owner and breeder, Vegso has had graded stakes winners such as Splendid Blended, Orchard Park, and Silver Tree. He said he's excited about his promising 2-year-olds Hyrule and Sacred Realm, who raced this summer at Saratoga and Calder, respectively, and he has 23 babies on his farm.

"If you're in racing, the chances of making money are slim and none," Vegso said.

"I've been very fortunate. We've had some success, but not that one great horse. It only takes one, whether it's a Triple Crown race or a Breeders' Cup. I haven't had my turn yet."

You could say Little Petey has one more dream to fulfill. He's waiting for his racing version of Chicken Soup.

Race and sports book notes

The middleweight title fight in Atlantic City, N.J., on Saturday night is shaping up as a great betting match that's as close to pick-em as any fight you'll ever see. Jermain Taylor is a -120 favorite over Kelly Pavlik at -110. The will go-won't go prop is set at 12 full rounds with it being -115 on each side.

o Station Casinos has Tony Stewart as the 5-1 favorite in this Sunday's Lifelock 400 at Kansas Speedway, with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon at 6-1 and Matt Kenseth at 8-1. There are eight races left in the Chase for the Cup with Gordon at 5-2, Johnson at 3-1, Stewart at 5-1 and Kenseth and Carl Edwards at 8-1.

o Bettors have been loading up on the NFL's five undefeated teams as the Packers have been bet from pick-em to -2 vs. the Vikings, the Cowboys from -10 1/2 to -13 vs. the Rams, the Steelers from -3 to -6 vs. the Cardinals, the Colts from -9 to -10 vs. the Broncos and the Patriots from -5 to -7 vs. the Bengals. Contrarian bettors could find some juicy prices - if they dare jump in front of the train.

o This is last call for the Fall Classic at the Orleans horse handicapping tournament, which runs next Thursday through Oct. 6. The entry fee is $500.