04/11/2006 11:00PM

Time to ante up for a lifer


ARCADIA, Calif. - As it turned out, the magical mystery helmet didn't help at all.

When Ross Fenstermaker was stricken by the effects of a cranial blood clot last month, he was not on horseback, for a change, and therefore not wearing the wildly decorated Caliente helmet that had protected his noggin for the last 50 years.

"I bought it second-hand in 1956 for about $15," Fenstermaker said just a few years ago, while taking a visitor on a tour of the distinctive headgear. "I'd seen what this guy in Chicago had painted on some other helmets - real nice horse scenes - so I told him to go ahead and do mine. When I got it back I felt like hittin' him, but he was a lot bigger than me."

What he got was a work of Peter Max meets Alberto Vargas. The helmet is adorned by three exotic dancers and, on the front, the face of a woman, with eyes crossed and flowing hair bejeweled.

"Right there is where Olympia Blend threw me when I landed on my head," Fenstermaker said, pointing to a chip just above the maiden's right eye. "These green streaks are from the rafters in the barn when horses go up with me. And if you look close, you can see a trace of the dent where the guy before me had his head kicked."

Helmet in place, Fenstermaker got his share of bumps and bruises through the years, but nothing stopped him like this. As the blood clot abated, he has been left with a partial paralysis that sadly may signal the end of his livelihood as an in-demand exercise rider on the Southern California scene, even at the age of 66.

As a result, the local racing community has taken up Fenstermaker's cause. "There but for the grace of God . . . " goes the thinking, since Fenstermaker's tough financial situation hits familiar notes, even after a lifetime on the racetrack. His friends have stepped up to present a no-limit Texas hold'em tournament for Fenstermaker's benefit on Saturday night, at the Embassy Suites Hotel near Santa Anita, with half the $200 buy-in going straight to their stricken comrade.

"Ross is typical of a lot of racetrackers," said jockey agent Tom Knust, who is helping with the tournament details. "You think you're going to be able to work on the track forever, and then just die. You don't save a lot of money, and the pension you get training horses isn't a whole lot."

With Fenstermaker in the saddle on a challenging runner, trainers have been able to tap into more than a half-century of hard-core horsemanship. They also get a guy who ranks among only a dozen living trainers who have had their hands on two or more horses who were elected to the Hall of Fame.

Elliott Burch leads the pack with four, while Neil Drysdale, Ron McAnally, Frank Whiteley and Wayne Lukas each trained three. Alongside Fenstermaker, with two Hall of Famers apiece, are John Nerud, LeRoy Jolley, John Veitch, Maurice Zilber, and Shug McGaughey.

Fenstermaker's portfolio as a young exercise rider included valuable time spent aboard such powerhouse runners as Swoon's Son, T.V. Lark, and the 1965 Horse of the Year, Roman Brother. Ross spent most of the 1960's as part of the hands-on training crew at Fred Hooper's Florida farm, dispatching horses like Olympia and Crozier to a variety of trainers in the big show.

In 1975, while on his own as a public trainer, Fenstermaker was tapped by Hooper to step in for R.L. Smith and shake Susan's Girl out of her four-race mid-season losing streak. It was a match made in horse heaven.

Before Ross took over, Susan's Girl had been trained by five different men, most notably John Russell, who guided her through 31 starts and two championships over parts of three seasons. By the time she was sent to Fenstermaker, the remarkable mare was 6 years old and had run 55 times.

Somehow, Fenstermaker managed to unleash the fire still burning deep in Susan's Girl. With Ross in charge, she won five of her final eight starts, including second career victories in the Beldame, the Spinster, and the Delaware Handicap. By season's end, Susan's Girl had done enough for Fenstermaker to earn her third national championship, and eventually a place in the Hall of Fame.

It was Fenstermaker's work with Hooper's Hall of Famer Precisionist, however, that earned the trainer an everlasting place in racing memory. The fiery chestnut won major stakes at 2, 3, 4, and 5 for Fenstermaker, including a rare sweep of the Strub Series at Santa Anita. Their crowning achievement came in the 1985 Breeders' Cup at Aqueduct, when Fenstermaker brought Precisionist back from a dead stop and barely three months of training to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and with it an Eclipse Award.

Fenstermaker might have been in better financial shape had his share in Precisionist as a stallion panned out. Instead, the horse was virtually sterile. But Ross never uttered a bitter word, nor cursed the hand he was dealt. And, even now, he would be the last guy to ask for a charitable gesture . . . which is precisely why his racetrack friends will show up in force at the Embassy Suites on Saturday night.