11/01/2001 1:00AM

Tiznow: A Cal-bred for the ages


ARCADIA, Calif. - The milestones arrived in bunches for after his hard-fought victory in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park last weekend.

With a glowing and epic stretch run against Arc de Triomphe winner Sakhee, Tiznow became the first repeat and two-time winner of the nation's richest race, and the first reigning Horse of the Year to win the Classic. After two losses and a lengthy layoff, Tiznow's victory put him back in the running for a second award as Horse of the Year.

The victory earned Tiznow the admiration of an international audience, but nowhere was it appreciated more than in California.

He is one of the state's own.

The Classic win pushed Tiznow's earnings to $6,427,830, past Best Pal ($5,668,245) and into first-place for California-breds.

Where he ranks among the state's greatest racehorses, the subject of a friendly debate among breeders, owners, and trainers whose participation in racing covers decades, is less clear.

Names such as Kentucky Derby winner Swaps, who earned $848,900, and Native Diver, the winner of three consecutive Hollywood Gold Cups from 1965 through 1967 who banked $1,026,500, are mentioned with Tiznow as the greatest Cal-breds, but they are difficult to compare. Air travel, million-dollar races, and the Breeders' Cup did not exist during the careers of Swaps and Native Diver.

Even the people closest to Tiznow are quick to pay tribute to California's old heroes. Jay Robbins, who trains Tiznow, was 10 in 1955 when Swaps won the Kentucky Derby, an image that remains forever in his mind.

"Swaps was the best horse I've ever seen run, and I'm a little more objective," Robbins said. "As fast as he could run, he could move so beautifully."

Robbins, 55, can boast of training three of the top 10 money-winning Cal-breds. Aside from Tiznow, he trained Nostalgia's Star ($2,154,827) and Flying Continental ($1,815,938), who are eighth and ninth, respectively, on the list.

"I always kept up with Cal-breds because I had Flying Continental and Nostalgia's Star," Robbins said. "It's all relative to the day. Look at Native Diver and Swaps and what they earned."

Modern-day racing and the sport in the 1950's can hardly be compared. Back then, Swaps's owner, Rex Ellsworth, and his trainer, Mesh Tenney, seldom campaigned their horses after Labor Day weekend.

Swaps never ran after Sept. 3 in any year, and he started his campaigns at 3 and 4 at Santa Anita in the winter. He had a flair for winning with style, compared to Tiznow's knack for keeping it close. Both horses have wide followings.

"Tiznow has got to be mentioned in the same breath as Swaps and Best Pal," said Wes Fitzpatrick, 66, the president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association. "He's that kind of horse.

"He is the true definition of a Thoroughbred. Swaps wanted to draw off and win by five, but this guy does it right here," said Fitzpatrick, pointing to his heart.

Tiznow and Best Pal both hail from the Breeders' Cup era. Best Pal was a major stakes winner from the ages of 2 to 5, from 1990 to 1993, but never won a Breeders' Cup race.

John Mabee, 80, who owned Best Pal with his wife, Betty, tips his hat to Tiznow.

"I think it's great," Mabee said. "I thought Tiznow was fantastic [in the Breeders' Cup]."

Trainer Mel Stute, 74, saw Swaps and Native Diver campaign. He trained Snow Chief, the 1986 Preakness Stakes winner, who at one time led the state's earnings list with $3,383,210. That is only good enough for third on the current list, which is fine with Stute.

For the last two years, Stute has been stabled near Robbins at Del Mar and has watched Tiznow's progress.

This year, he watched with admiration as Robbins played catch-up with Tiznow after a back injury forced the colt to the sidelines in the spring. For a while, it was touch-and-go as to whether Tiznow would make the major races in the fall. In Stute's opinion, the frustration of getting Tiznow through his back problems and to the races was reason enough to make Robbins pull his hair out.

"He already talks to himself," Stute said.

Stute watched the Breeders' Cup races from Santa Anita last week and was quick to praise Tiznow and Robbins's work.

"Jay had him good and fit," Stute said. "I was proud of him."

Stute admits that comparing horses of different eras is difficult. But Snow Chief and Tiznow shared, at least, the characteristic of relishing a battle. Snow Chief's nose victory over Ferdinand in the 1987 Strub Stakes was proof of that.

"Snow Chief wasn't as big as Tiznow," Stute said. "Swaps was great, but it's a different era now."

To others, Tiznow is a standout over the last 40 years.

"He would have to be the top California handicap horse in modern history for me, which is mid-1960's on," said Gerald McMahon, 50, the president of the Barretts Sales Company in Pomona.

McMahon worked on the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association's magazine in the 1970's and later for the association's sales company. He has been with Barretts since it was formed in the late 1980's after a stint with Fasig-Tipton's California division. He's seen California breeders develop several nationally prominent horses, including one of his favorites, Best Pal.

"I would go back to horses like Quicken Tree and Ancient Title as dominant handicap horses," McMahon said, referring to stars of the 1960's and 70's. "What [Tiznow] has done has surpassed those. I don't know if there are any that could touch him with the exception of Swaps."

McMahon said Tiznow's accomplishments have come in an era of more international competition than did Swaps's.

"We're so used to having our great horses stumble," McMahon said. "Someone is supposed to get it done each year, and over and over they don't do what we hope they'll do. Here he is doing it in front of everyone."

Tiznow is the lone California-bred to have won a Breeders' Cup race, making up for losses this year by California-breds Officer (Juvenile) and Queenie Belle (Distaff) and 17 previous years of futility.

Tiznow is owned by Michael Cooper and the children of the late Cecilia Straub-Rubens - Kevin Cochrane and Pamela Ziebarth. Straub-Rubens attended Tiznow's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last year. She died three days later after a lengthy battle with cancer.

For the state's breeding industry, his presence is another shot in the arm, especially for his sire, Cee's Tizzy, who stands at Harris Farm in Coalinga.

Farm owner John Harris said Cee's Tizzy was booked to 40 mares for the 2002 breeding season at $15,000, live foal, before the Breeders' Cup. He said the ownership syndicate is reconsidering Cee's Tizzy's stud fees.

"He's had nine stakes winner this year," said Harris, 58. "He's not a one-horse stallion."

There is more to come from Tiznow, who may start later this month in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and will be campaigned next year at 5.

Harris, for one, is anxious, to see if Tiznow can attempt a third win in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

"It took us so long to win with a Cal-bred, and now we've done it two years in a row," Harris said. "People tend to dismiss Cal-breds at the top level, but they can't do that. This was an international race with Galileo and Sakhee.

"Tiznow has run so many big races. He's established himself as the top handicap horse of the decade. I think he's special because people have had a chance to follow him in a multi-year career."


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