10/19/2005 11:00PM

A rookie with 50 years of experience

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
At age 71, the Louisiana-based trainer Andy Leggio will have his first Breeders' Cup runner when Happy Ticket (above) goes in the Distaff.

WASHINGTON - When pre-entries for the Breeders' Cup were announced Wednesday, the usual powerful stables were strongly represented. Trainer Todd Pletcher has eight horses in the eight championship races Oct. 29 at Belmont Park. Nick Zito, Bill Mott and Ireland's Aidan O'Brien each have five probable starters. Andy Leggio has one - the filly Happy Ticket. She is the first Breeders' Cup runner of his career and the best Thoroughbred he has trained in his 71 years.

But the lack of a big operation or a national reputation doesn't mean that a trainer will be at a disadvantage in the Breeders' Cup. The biggest favorite of the day will be the sprinter Lost in the Fog, trained by Greg Gilchrist, who until this year was little known outside northern California. Happy Ticket is the choice of many smart handicappers in the $2 million Distaff. Both animals have benefited from impeccable management by horsemen who have amply paid their dues to be in the profession.

"I got started in the business when I was 15," said Leggio, who grew up in New Orleans, with a father who loved playing the horses. "I went to work for a trainer named Odie Clelland, cleaning his stalls. He taught me how to gallop horses, and I did that for quite a while." More than 20 years later, Leggio became a trainer, with a couple of cheap claiming horses at defunct Jefferson Downs in Louisiana.

Over the years he has built an operation of respectable size, dealing mostly with claiming horses and low-level allowance runners, and has compiled a record that has earned him respect on the Louisiana circuit. But no one could have guessed that Leggio would be playing on the sport's biggest stage or that a Louisiana-bred filly with a modest pedigree would take him there.

Happy Ticket was bred by Stewart Madison, co-owner of a record company specializing in blues and gospel music. He worried that Happy Ticket would inherit some of his mother's physical problems and anticipated that the filly was going to need careful handling. "I sent the horse to Andy," Madison said, "because he's a very patient, very knowledgeable horseman."

Leggio's work has confirmed that judgment. After a couple of setbacks before she reached the races, Happy Ticket reeled off seven consecutive victories as a 3-year-old, most of them runaways against mediocre Louisiana-bred stakes competition. Leggio was in no hurry to push the filly into the big leagues. After she suffered a physical setback in December, he laid her off until May. But after she launched her 4-year-old season with another romp, Leggio said, "It's time to step up."

Happy Ticket traveled to Arlington Park (where she won her ninth in a row), to Calder (where she had a rough trip and suffered her first defeat), and then to Saratoga for the Grade 1 Ballerina Handicap. When she won that sprint by five lengths, she confirmed that she is a big-time talent.

It was an eventful weekend for Leggio and his family. The day after the Ballerina, Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans, where he makes his home, as do his three children and 10 grandchildren. Leggio's house was damaged, and all of his family members evacuated to Bossier City, where Leggio has an apartment he uses during the Louisiana Downs season. Amid the chaos, Leggio made his most important decision affecting Happy Ticket's career. She had delivered her best performances at six and seven furlongs, and most fans perceived her as a sprinter, but Leggio thought otherwise. He entered her in the prestigious 1 1/8-mile Beldame Stakes at Belmont, against the formidable Ashado, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Ashado beat Happy Ticket in the Beldame, but handicappers who dissected the race thought the loser might have been the better horse. Ashado took the lead after setting an absurdly slow pace - with the first quarter in 24.50 seconds - and with such a tactical advantage nobody should have been able to threaten her. Yet Happy Ticket was surging at her in the stretch and lost by only a half-length. On the basis of that performance, Happy Ticket could win the 1 1/8-mile Distaff to climax an improbable success story.

The filly is one of several horses in the last few years who have come from unlikely backgrounds to excel at the top level of the game. The heroes of the last three Triple Crown series - Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones, and Funny Cide - were horses with modest pedigrees who hailed from stables that were not national powers.

There may be an explanation for this phenomenon. In the past, horses with elite pedigrees dominated America's most important distance races, and horses with such pedigrees invariably went to the elite trainers. But since so many of America's best bloodlines have been exported abroad, and there are now relatively few U.S. stallions renowned for siring top distance runners, the playing field has been leveled, genetically speaking. Many of the sport's stars are now horses with the type of middling pedigrees that go into the care of non-elite trainers.

But many of the lesser-known horsemen have the skill to manage a top horse - they've just never had the opportunity. Tim Ritchey distinguished himself with his management of Afleet Alex this spring; Gilchrist has done so with Lost in the Fog. Leggio has not been even slightly intimidated by stepping into the big leagues of racing at 71.

"I've never had a horse of this caliber before," he said, "but training Happy Ticket for these races has been no problem whatsoever. I've managed her the way I've managed most horses in the barn. I've been doing this for 35 years, and if I don't know what to do now, I shouldn't be in the business."

(c) The Washington Post 2005