09/18/2008 12:00AM

Super Derby revivifies Gleaves

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NEW YORK - "I'm sitting here in Louisiana waiting for a cold beer and a plate of crawfish etouffee," Phil Gleaves said when he picked up his phone Thursday afternoon. "I'm on the once-a-decade Super Derby plan."

Gleaves won the first Super Derby he ran in, with Wise Times in 1986, and then ran seventh behind Arch with the longshot Sophisticated Man when he came back in 1998. On Saturday at Louisiana Downs, the trainer will be making his third start in the race with Mambo Meister, an improving 3-year-old who, like his trainer, has been doing his racing off the national radar in South Florida. Bred in Kentucky by J.R. Cavanaugh, a member of the Quantum Racing Team that campaigns him, Mambo Meister arrived in Gleaves's Calder barn last fall looking like a grass prospect.

"When you get a King Cugat gelding," he recalled, "you think he's meant to run over the spinach."

After a couple of decent thirds on the turf, Mambo Meister's fourth career start was rained onto the main track. He won by six lengths in fast time, and he's stayed on the dirt ever since. He wasn't ready for the Triple Crown trail, but blossomed this summer at Calder, capped by a 5o1/2-length romp in the American Dreamer that earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 99, better than anyone in the Super Derby field except favored Macho Again has ever run.

When Gleaves won the 1986 Haskell, Travers, and Super Derby with Wise Times in his first full year training on his own, it seemed like the start of a career that would be spent in the limelight. The Liverpool native had been an exercise rider and then a top assistant to Woody Stephens in the early 1980s, working alongside Billy Badgett, Sandy Bruno, and David Donk during the golden era of the five straight Belmonts, Devil's Bag and Swale, and a Murderer's Row of champions year after year. While Gleaves has been around some nice horses since then - he won the 1988 Jerome with Evening Kris, and sent out Distorted Humor to win his debut in 1995 before that colt was sold - he has spent much of the last decade toiling in relative obscurity in Florida, and the Super Derby will be his first graded-stakes start in five years.

Gleaves's unusual career trajectory has been a matter of choice, and he says he has no regrets. As the single parent of a 9-year-old son, Schuyler, Gleaves decided six years ago to make Florida his year-round home.

"I made a conscious decision to keep him in one school and give him that stability," he said Thursday. "Sure, it changes your business around, but my priority was and is Schuyler."

He's happy that Florida continues to race on dirt and grass. Gleaves is no fan of synthetic surfaces for racing.

"They jumped the gun and rushed to judgment with these synthetics," he said. "I saw them put in back home and it had nothing to do with safety - it was just to have flat racing during the winter. If they were going to be put in over here, it should have been as training tracks, and we could have found out which was the best one and gotten it right."

Gleaves despairs over the current state of racing and is especially passionate about the issue of steroids. He has turned down some training opportunities because of his strong anti-medication stance.

"Steroids have been a curse on the sport," he said. "There are things I won't do with horses, and I have good friends, big-name trainers, who feel the same way and have lost horses because of it. I'm so glad that the racing commissions are finally doing something. It needs to be policed because a lot of trainers, vets, and owners can't be trusted. Yes, they may have a limited therapeutic use, for a finicky-eating filly or a newly gelded horse who's lost a lot of weight. But that's not what's been going on in racing. It's been Marion Jones, Barry Bonds kind of stuff. If an owner sent me the best horse in North America and said he wanted me to go that way, I'd send him back. I have too much reverence for the horse, and for the game, to do that.

"I've never had a positive of any kind," he added. "I'm closing in on 500 career winners. That may not sound like a lot, but I can say to my son, every one of them was legitimate. No asterisks."