06/20/2002 11:00PM

Surprise! Downey's ship comes in

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Walter Downey was, well, surprised.

Beau's Surprise, bred by Downey and sold as a weanling for $5,000 at the Keeneland November Mixed sale in 1998, won eight races - five of which were stakes - from 11 starts last year. After a nearly six-month layoff, the Pennsylvania-bred 4-year-old Beau's Surprise has returned in 2002 to win both of his starts, the most recent a hard-fought neck victory over Wild Current in the Lyman Sprint Championship Handicap at Philadelphia Park on June 15. To date, Beau's Surprise has earned $259,274 from 15 starts.

"He was the ugliest thing as a foal," Downey said of Beau's Surprise. Produced from the mare Champagne Surprise, a daughter of Fappiano from the family of Genuine Risk whom Downey had bought at the 1997 Keeneland fall mixed sale for $22,000, Beau's Surprise was destined to be sold as a weanling.

Wanting to recoup some of his expenses for Champagne Surprise, who was in Kentucky to be bred, Downey decided to sell her foal by Beau Genius. Upon seeing the weanling again, Downey's initial opinion of Beau's Surprise didn't change. "He was poorly developed," he said. "And since he was in Kentucky, I put him through a Kentucky sale."

The colt's sales price was well below the average for weanlings by Beau Genius.

But Beau's Surprise developed, and early in his juvenile season he was spotted in a field near Penn National by trainer Todd Beattie, who was impressed by the colt. Beattie purchased the just-turned 2-year-old for first-time owner and Pennsylvania resident Tom McClay. It is McClay who goes to the winner's circle with his stakes-winning charge, but Downey continues to reap breeder awards every time Beau's Surprise runs well in Pennsylvania.

Last year, Downey earned more than $58,000 in breeder bonuses, mostly from the success of Beau's Surprise. Add in the more than $72,000 in stallion bonuses earned by Judge Smells, whom Downey bought in Kentucky to stand at stud in Pennsylvania in 1995, and Downey ranked as the state's top fund award recipient in 2001, with a total of $130,608.

It was Pennsylvania's breeders' program that lured Downey, a Massachusetts businessman, to the state when he had the opportunity to buy Judge Smells. Downey found a person he could rely on to manage his horse holdings, Barbara Rickline of Xanthus Farms in Gettysburg. She encouraged the breeder to stand the stallion and foal his mares in Pennsylvania.

A native Bostonian, Downey has been involved with Thoroughbreds for more than 20 years. His involvement increased when he was asked to join a group that took over Suffolk Downs in 1991; he continues to own an interest on the track and serves on its board of directors. Downey's horizons expanded even further when he owned Smells and Bells in the early 1990's. Smells and Bells, by Judge Smells, was purchased as a yearling by Downey for $17,000, and placed in five stakes, three graded, earning $150,281. Downey was soon sold on Judge Smells.

Downey may be considered a pioneer when it comes to Pennsylvania's growing stallion market: Judge Smells was the first nationally recognized stallion to move to the state in the 1990's. Judge Smells's popularity spurred many of the state's other farms to find stallions with similar credentials.

The death of Judge Smells in 2000 from laminitis was a blow to Downey, who has more than a dozen broodmares in Pennsylvania, most purchased specifically to breed to Judge Smells. However, Downey's hopes remain high for the syndicated stallion Western Echo, who also stands at Xanthus.

Western Echo, a graded stakes winning juvenile who campaigned for five years and earned $608,716, has his first foals at the races this year. He is a son of Eastern Echo, as is current leading freshman sire, the California-based Swiss Yodeler.

"Western Echo is such a good horse physically and he was such a good performer. I think any kind of mare can go to him," said Downey, who has now bred the majority of his mares to the stallion. "His foals look a lot like him."

One mare who didn't get to visit Western Echo was Champagne Surprise, who died in 2000 after producing a Judge Smells filly Downey named Judge Barbara. Foaled in Massachusetts, Judge Barbara is currently in training for her breeder and is expected to make her first start in the next few months.