04/19/2006 11:00PM

Scholarship fund carries on a spirit


ARCADIA, Calif. - If you want to make a grown man cry, just get Willie Lopez talking about his 18-year-old daughter, Nancy.

Lopez is a respected exercise rider and former jockey who works for Southern California-based trainer Marty Jones. While working for Jones - and before that, Marty's father, Gary Jones - Lopez handled such fabulous fillies as Lakeway, Kostroma, and Alphabet Kisses. Their victories in races like the Santa Anita Oaks, Hollywood Oaks, Mother Goose, Yellow Ribbon, Beverly D., and the A Gleam brought Lopez great pride as part of the winning team. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare with the chest-busting explosion of fatherly adoration that reduces Lopez to tears whenever he considers the accomplishments of his own little girl.

"She has worked for law offices," Lopez said, his English still laced with the accent of his native Peru. "She worked for a center to help people hurt by domestic abuse. She took classes to get into college early. She had a GPA of 4.2 in high school, and now she is going to Berkeley.

"Me? No, I never had a chance like that," Lopez added. "For me, where I grew up, there was no facility to go to a college. My life, where I grew up, was very hard. That's why I am so proud of her, so happy sometimes I cry."

Choke. Pause.

Nancy Angelica Lopez, now into her second semester at the University of California at Berkeley and majoring in political science, figures to have a lot more choices in life than her father. For this, the Lopez family gives a generous portion of their gratitude to the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation, a scholarship program established by the California Thoroughbred Trainers to help the children of licensed backstretch employees.

Lopez is one of 54 individual students who have received 108 scholarship grants totaling more than $180,000 from the Gregson Foundation since 2001. Trainer Jenine Sahadi, current president of the CTT, runs the program with the help of foundation secretary Angie Carmona and a board of directors that includes Rick Baedeker, Eddie Delahoussaye, Ed Halpern, Sarah Kelly, Leigh Ann Howard, F. Jack Liebau Jr., Mike Puhich, Andrew Richards and Gail Gregson, wife of the late Eddie Gregson.

"Eddie was a driving force behind the CTT's efforts to help the quality of life for the people working on the backstretch," Sahadi noted. "Naming the scholarship program in his memory seemed the right thing to do."

No argument there. Gregson was an heir to the vast Janss family fortune derived from land holdings and development in the western San Fernando Valley. As a trainer, he won the 1982 Kentucky Derby with Gato del Sol and a host of major stakes with the likes of Super Diamond, Tsunami Slew, Petite Ile, and Love Smitten.

Gregson epitomized noblesse oblige in action, doing all he could to fulfill the communal obligations of those born into fortunate circumstances. And while his gunshot suicide in June of 2000 tore a hole in the West Coast racing world, the work of the Gregson Foundation has done its share to help close the wound.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time we're talking about the first kids in the family that have ever gone to college," Sahadi said. "We have another girl besides Nancy going to Berkeley, another to USC, and a brother and a sister, whose father works here, both at college in Mexico."

Each grant can be worth as much as $3,000, depending on need.

"A lot of the grant winners are in community colleges, so they may only need $1,000 or $1,500 to get them through the year," Sahadi pointed out. "But we also steer them to the places that can help them apply for other scholastic grants, either state or federally funded. Nine times out of 10 they don't know they're eligible."

On Monday night, at the Twin Palms Restaurant in Pasadena, the Gregson Foundation will hold its annual fund-raising dinner. This year's honorees will be Ann and Jerry Moss, owners of 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and longtime supporters of racing's most worthy charities, including the Gregson Foundation.

"I'm a real a supporter of the found-ation's work," said Jerry Moss, who also serves on the California Horse Racing Board. "I've always been impressed at the way racing really tries hard to take care of its own.

"If only their government took as good a care of its people as racing does, this country would be in much better shape."

For all their fame and industry impact, the Mosses must share billing Monday night with such Gregson grant recipients as Juan Ochoa, currently the leading apprentice jockey at Santa Anita, and Ariana Reynoso, who has recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in sociology. Sahadi is already applauding her backers.

"The same people seem to step up to the plate every year," Sahadi said. "Most of them don't want to be acknowledged. But there is a remarkable level of generosity from individuals in this game, for things that they think make a difference. And I don't see how you could not deem an educational process the most important life-changing thing."