12/15/2005 12:00AM

From small scale to big time

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - John Adger recalls the conversation as if it happened yesterday, when one of the richest men in Texas wanted him to come over and talk about horses.

It was January of 1994 when Adger had his first serious sit-down with Bob and Janice McNair. A mutual friend brought them together, and now they were laying the philosophical groundwork for owning and operating a Thoroughbred racing stable. The McNairs were new to the game, whereas Adger brought years of experience, including a successful run managing the Oak Cliff Stable of Tom Tatham, and being a longtime Houston boy didn't hurt him one bit. Bob McNair and John Adger spoke the same language, which is why Adger had no reason not to take McNair at his word when he said, flat out:

"John, I never want to own more than 10 horses, and I certainly don't want to own a farm."

What McNair really wanted was a football team, which he eventually landed when the NFL granted him the most recent expansion franchise in Houston. Somewhere along the way, however, the McNairs' desire to keep things small on the Thoroughbred side got tangled in translation. As a result, "small" turned into "huge," and now, hundreds of horses and three major properties later, the Stonerside Stable of Robert and Janice McNair ranks as one of the most influential vertically integrated operations in North America.

The various corners of the McNair Thoroughbred empire will come together Saturday at Hollywood Park, where the latest and most promising product of Stonerside's Kentucky nursery is set to run in the $250,000 Hollywood Futurity, a race that has presaged such classically oriented colts as A.P. Indy, Point Given, Real Quiet, Snow Chief, Stephan's Odyssey, Best Pal, and Lion Heart.

His name - Bob and John - requires no explanation, and he is the likely favorite in a small field after his impressive, although disqualified, victory in the Real Quiet Stakes over the same course and distance two weeks ago.

John will be on hand for Bob and John, but Bob will not, since the Texans are playing in Houston on Sunday in an attempt to salvage some pride in a 1-12 season.

Bob and John is bred for the task. He is by Seeking the Gold, aging but still coveted, and out of Minister's Melody, a stakes-winning daughter of Deputy Minister whose line traces quickly to that all-around cup horse Exceller. The McNairs bought Minister's Melody at auction for $400,000 in 1995, their first full year in the business.

"That's been our ultimate goal, to breed good horses that can hopefully compete at the highest level," Adger said. "I'd say that all started when we were fortunate enough to buy the Elmendorf Farm broodmare band back in 1997."

From day one, and with few exceptions, the McNairs and Adger have tapped into some of racing's deepest, richest veins. The Elmendorf families went back to the heyday of the Maxwell Gluck years, from Prince John to Speak John and on to the likes of Protagonist, Talking Picture, Pay Tribute, and Magazine.

To house their mares and raise their foals, the McNairs bought proven Kentucky land from their good friend Arthur Hancock III, breeder of Kentucky Derby winners Sunday Silence and Gato del Sol. When they saw an opportunity to gain a foothold in a major New York racing center, the McNairs purchased the Whitney family's Greentree Farm estate adjacent to Saratoga, where Tom Fool trained. Then, needing a Southern strategy as well, Stonerside came to terms with Hall of Famer Mack Miller and acquired his land near Camden, S.C., where Miller trained the horses of Paul Mellon.

"That's it, though," Adger said with a laugh. "Bob doesn't want to give any more work to McNair Construction."

Adger, the 62-year-old son of a PanAm pilot, oversees the various Stonerside endeavors of buying, selling, breeding, and racing. Tagged with the catch-all label of "racing manager," he serves the McNairs as close adviser and ambassador at large, representing his clients at the highest levels of racing's broad commerce.

Adger does not, however, recall his job description to include a horse being named in his honor. Apparently, the Stonerside family enjoys bestowing such favors, with Janice McNair usually providing the inspiration.

"There's a pretty high standard," Adger said. "Karen's Caper is named for the wife of the Texans coach, Dom Capers. We have a top Texas-bred colt called Texas Charlie, named after the Texans general manager. And then, probably most important of all, there is the filly Becky Virtue, who is named after Mr. McNair's executive assistant. She runs all his businesses."

When it comes to the Thoroughbred business, Adger tried to make plain the pitfalls from day one. That first conversation with the McNairs included a warning.

"I told them, 'If you can't accept a lot of disappointment, don't get in,' " Adger said. "And if you win 20 percent of the time, you have to consider yourself a success. Fortunately, we've been able to do a little bit better than that."

And it beats the heck out of 1-12.