04/24/2007 11:00PM

Tale of three worthy winners


AUBURN, Wash. - Every horse has a story, and so it was with the three who won the featured races - each a prep for an upcoming stakes - on opening weekend at Emerald Downs.

The Great Face drew the most attention, as befits a horse who equaled the North American dirt record for 5 1/2 furlongs. The Great Face, a 5-year-old son of Cahill Road who races for track president Ron Crockett, won the $50,000 optional claimer that went as Friday's opening night feature by 5 1/4 lengths in 1:01.20. That tied the record set by Silvey's Image at Turf Paradise in 1992 and equaled first by Plenty Zloty in 1995 at Turf Paradise and then by Willie the Cat on opening day of the 2004 meeting at Emerald Downs. Willie the Cat was also owned by Crockett, who could be the only owner in the history of the game to race two different horses with a piece of the same North American track record.

The track at Emerald can be freakishly fast early in the meet. That was certainly the case on Friday, when almost every race was run more than two seconds faster than par.

Even so, few fans would have predicted that The Great Face would be the one to make history. Though he was a brilliantly fast 3-year-old here in 2005, when he won 3 of 6 starts, all by big margins, he was a disappointment last year. The Great Face raced only twice in 2006, finishing fourth in the Seattle Handicap at six furlongs and eighth in the FSN Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs. No one was more disappointed than trainer Tom Wenzel, but at least Wenzel knew the reason for the unproductive campaign.

"I actually thought he ran pretty well in his first start last year, but in his second start he started having problems with his air," Wenzel said. "He had an operation to correct that problem and it worked fine, but right about the time I got him ready to run again he bruised a foot. That bruise took forever to heal. It just lingered and lingered, and by the time he was right again the season was just about over.

"His whole 4-year-old campaign was basically wasted, and that was very frustrating because we knew he had a world of talent."

Wenzel, like most trainers, is an optimist at heart. Even in the midst of his frustration, he glimpsed a silver lining.

"I told Ron last year that things might work out for the best in the long run," he said. "The division was just so tough last year with Starbird Road and Flamethrowintexan, we might not have done a lot of good anyway."

The Great Face is expected the meet Starbird Road in the six-furlong Seattle Handicap on May 6.

Poor conformation, strong heart

With a saddle on and a rider up, A Touch of Malice, who won Saturday's $50,000 optional claiming feature for 3-year-olds, is one of the most striking-looking horses on the grounds. He has, as trainer Howard Belvoir remarked, "the muscles of a body-builder."

Without the camouflage of rider and saddle, however, A Touch of Malice has one of the most dramatically swayed backs of any racehorse you are likely to see. And swaybacked horses are something that horsemen normally avoid.

"I'll tell you how most horsemen feel about them," said Belvoir. "I bought his mother at auction for $52,000, and his mother's first foal sold for $60,000 at auction. This guy didn't get a bid."

So what's the knock on swaybacked horses?

"The swayback changes their action, for one thing, but the main thing is that they don't stay sound," said Belvoir. "This guy has knock-knees as well, so he has a double whammy. That's why I started him out for a $12,500 tag."

A Touch of Malice won his 2-year-old debut by 10 1/2 lengths, however, and he came back to win his 3-year-old debut on Saturday by 5 1/4 lengths in 1:03 for 5 1/2 furlongs.

"I still don't know how long he will last, but he's awfully fast," said Belvoir. "His real secret weapon is his heart, though. He really wants to beat you. With all that, he is the kindest horse I've ever seen. He is a big favorite around our barn."

Kissntheboysgoodby's new dimension

Kissntheboysgoodby, who won Sunday's headliner, another 5 1/2-furlong $50,000 optional claimer, has had to overcome neither conformation defects nor serious ailments or injuries. Many horsemen would maintain that makes her story even more unusual than the stories of The Great Face and A Touch of Malice.

Kissntheboysgoodby, a 5-year-old daughter of Tropic Lightning who races for Dean Essex and is trained by the owner's son Charles Essex, has been a good horse from the beginning. She has won 7 of 15 starts, she has never finished worse than fifth, and she went into Sunday's feature with a string of seven exacta finishes from her previous eight starts. She also looked like a million bucks, with dapples on her dapples, and she went off as the 3-2 favorite.

True to her form, she won by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:02.60 under Kate Repp. The only surprise was that Kissntheboysgoodby, who normally races right up on the lead, came from five lengths off the pace of She's All Silk, who held second despite ducking out and clipping the heels of Kissntheboysgoodby as that one powered by.

"I kind of like the idea of her coming from off the pace," said Charles Essex. "That way she doesn't use herself up, and she might last a little longer. At the same time, if she ever gets in a race where there is no pace, she obviously has the speed to take advantage of that. She's versatile. There aren't too many chinks in her armor at this point."