02/02/2006 1:00AM

Rodeo's Castle beating the odds

Lone Star Park
Rodeo's Castle (right) zeroes in on Joe Six Pack en route to victory in the $75,000 Ford Express last spring at Lone Star Park.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Rodeo's Castle has overcome a clubbed foot to become one of the best sprinters in the Midwest, and on Saturday should start as the favorite in the $50,000 King Cotton at Oaklawn Park.

Rodeo's Castle comes into the race off the biggest win of his career, the $274,000 Kenner Breeders' Cup Handicap at the Fair Grounds meet at Louisiana Downs on Jan. 14. That race was a long way from the $7,500 maiden claiming level at which he began his career in October 2004. One start later, Rodeo's Castle joined the stable of trainer Beverly Fowler after being claimed for $12,500 by one of her clients, Byron House III.

Rodeo's Castle has taken Fowler on an adventure that has led to the most significant wins of her more than 15-year career as a trainer. He has won three stakes, placed in two others, and overall is 8 for 15 with earnings of $356,260.

It is an unlikely resume for a horse whose right front foot is deformed. The heel sits higher than normal, which limits his action, or motion. In turn, the incorrect conformation can put stress and strain on the rest of the body, making maintenance a constant job with Rodeo's Castle.

"He's a special horse," Fowler said. "He shows you how much heart that he has, even with the problems he has. He has a clubbed foot. He has pulled muscles. But he has a lot of heart and want-to. He loves to race."

While it is unusual for a horse with a clubbed foot to win major stakes, it is not unprecedented. The most popular horse to do so was Assault, the 1946 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year, who was nicknamed the Club-Footed Comet.

Rodeo's Castle is Fowler's Assault. She pampers him. She spoils him. And she uses different tools, such as a cold laser and infrared therapy blanket, to ease muscle soreness. Fowler also treats Rodeo's Castle with full body massages when she feels the need arises.

"When you start working on certain areas, he just folds down," she said. "It's like, 'Okay, he likes that.' "

Fowler said a big key to keeping a horse like Rodeo's Castle going is the work of a skilled blacksmith, whose task is to keep the heel-to-toe ratio of the hoof as correct as can be for a horse with a clubbed foot.

"I have an exceptional blacksmith, Don Matthews," said Fowler. "I mean he has really, really worked on him, and where it used to take me almost 90 days to get the heat out of the feet, with Don working on him now we haven't had the problems that I had last year."

Despite his issues, Rodeo's Castle won 5 of 11 starts in 2005, and set a track record at Lone Star Park when he won the $75,000 Ford Express, a six-furlong race, in 1:07.80. Rodeo's Castle also won the $50,000 Kings Court at Louisiana Downs last year, as well as three straight allowances at Oaklawn.

This year, he has trumped his accomplishments of last year, with a gutty win in the Kenner over Grade 2 winner Beau's Town. In addition to Saturday's King Cotton, Rodeo's Castle is being pointed for Oaklawn's other two sprint stakes, the $50,000 Hot Springs on March 19, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap on April 13.

"He seems to have gotten better," said Fowler. "We did give him some time off and he came back and just trained better and better. I think maturity has made a difference, and the fact that he doesn't hurt as much as he used to. He seems to be just getting better with age, which we hope continues on."

So do his fans. Rodeo's Castle has lots of them, Fowler has learned.

"It's kind of like he's the people's horse," she said. "He was kind of the underdog, so to speak, and for him to continue on . . . I'm just constantly amazed at the number of people that will just come and grab hold of me and say 'Rodeo's Castle!' "