10/27/2010 2:45PM

Supplementing to Breeders' Cup always a gamble

Benoit & Associates
Supreme Summit (left) was second to Smiling Tiger in the Ancient Title.

During a year of mid-term elections, like this one, political junkies can get a fix just about any time they want, in any sort of wrapping, from March straight through the summer and into the fall. Election Day, for the true political junkie, is a bummer of a total letdown.

For a racing fan, turn that equation on its head. Once the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are in the books – or the Belmont Stakes if some poor thing has the misfortune to win the first two – life is a series of compensations until that fine autumn weekend, usually right around Election Day, when the Breeders’ Cup races fill the air with their heady display of international stars.

And now it is almost here, signified by the release of the 184 names pre-entered for the 14 Breeders’ Cup races to be run at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5 and Nov. 6. Just about every horse any racing fan could hope to be there will be there, with the unfortunate exception of the 2009 Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra, now retired. Her absence is a large loss, but a loss that is at least somewhat mitigated by the looming presence of Zenyatta, Goldikova, Workforce, Lookin At Lucky, Gio Ponti, Blind Luck, Midday, Proviso, Espoir City, and exciting 2-year-olds Uncle Mo and Boys at Tosconova.

The $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint, at least this version, has not been blessed with one of those headline names among the dozen entered for its Nov. 6 running. And that is just fine with Mike Puype, who trains Supreme Summit for owner Joseph Lacombe.

Of the three, Lacombe is the familiar name in a Breeders’ Cup context. His 2-year-old Favorite Trick won the 1997 running of the Juvenile at Hollywood Park to nail down an undefeated season and eventually came out on top of a close vote for Horse of the Year.

Puype, a native of Arizona, has run one horse in a Breeders’ Cup race. That was in 1999, at Churchill Downs, and for a glorious minute and a half or so he was treated to the sight of Gary Biszantz’s Old Trieste leading the field for the Breeders’ Cup Classic from the gate to the top of the stretch. Old Trieste retreated from there, a victim of what was an injured splint bone, and was retired, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, or Puype’s preparation.

As for Supreme Summit, a light perusal of his Racing Form past performances would indicate that when it comes to competing at the top of the sprinting game, he has been found wanting. While trained by Doug O’Neill, Supreme Summit lost races such as the Malibu, the Ancient Title, the Palos Verdes, and the San Carlos − all California indicators of Breeders’ Cup ability – and fared no better in a couple of trips to the other coast.

After getting the horse last spring, Puype has run Supreme Summit twice. He won an allowance race at Del Mar without much fuss, then finished second, beaten half a length, in the Ancient Title at Hollywood Park earlier this month. That was enough to convince Puype he had a horse who could be competitive in the BC Sprint, as long as Lacombe was willing to pay a $100,000 one-time eligibility fee on top of the $60,000 in entry and starting fees to get Supreme Summit in the mix.

Many trainers have had that part of the brain removed that expresses a reluctance, or at least a trace of a conscience, about spending huge sums of other people’s money. It is a simple operation, leaving no external scar, and trainers who have gone through the procedure testify to gaining a lightness of spirit that allows them to function in ways they have not known before.

Richard Mandella thought he was doing pretty good, finally starting to spend serious sums of other people’s money, when he relapsed in 1998 while watching Gentlemen, supplemented with $800,000 of Dee Hubbard’s scratch, bleed and finish last in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I was standing next to the trainer that day, and he turned a shade of bilious green I would not want to see twice.

It is with the aid and comfort of owners such as Robert Lewis who make such supplementary gambles go down a little easier. I know this sounds ghoulish, but I was also standing near Lewis at Woodbine in 1996, when, having supplemented Criolito for $200,000 to run in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, he watched his horse walk out of the gate as if surprised by the whole affair. Less than 20 seconds into the race Lewis turned to his wife, Beverly, and said, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s get the next one.”

“It wasn’t the amount Mr. LaCombe had to pay as much as when he paid it,” Puype said Wednesday morning at Hollywood. “He’s the kind of straightforward businessman who gets things done and doesn’t leave any loose ends, so he had that $100,000 wired well in advance of the deadline. What that meant, though, is that I was working the horse twice more with that non-refundable hundred-grand already out there, and I’ve got to admit it got my heart pounding a little bit, having to worry about not one work but two.

“But the horse is there physically, and he worked great last Saturday,” Puype said. “Now he’s got the Friday work, and we ship to Kentucky. I really appreciate the owner’s vote of confidence and his investment, but we wouldn’t be doing it unless we believed in the horse.”