12/07/2009 1:00AM

Trainer profile: William Phipps


Tampa Bay Downs opens for its winter meet this Saturday, and if past performance is any indication, expect William Phipps to get off to a good start with the horses he trains at Payson Park.

"I'm looking forward to them opening up. We're excited to get started," said Phipps. "You go over there any day of the week, and the parking lot's full. It's kind of cool to go to a racetrack where everyone's still into it."

Last year, Phipps was just going out on his own after a five-year stint as an assistant trainer with Bill Mott, and won with his first five starters at the meet. Leading the charge was Dream Rush, a multiple-graded-stakes-winning mare now in foal to A.P. Indy who returned from a freshening to win an allowance and the Minaret Stakes before winding up her career with a start in the Barbara Fritchie.

Phipps also won twice with Fierce Wind, who won a starter handicap route in his first start since the Florida Derby nearly 10 months earlier, and then came back to win the Challenger Stakes later at the meet.

"Beginner's luck," said Phipps, a 38-year-old native of Springfield, Ill. "If we could repeat that kind of start, it would be fantastic. I've been fortunate and lucky enough to work for some good horsemen and around some good horses. It's really been a dream come true."

Although Dream Rush, his first winner, was a dyed-in-the-wool sprinter, Phipps's background began with steeplechase horses.

"I started with the jumpers before I came to the racetrack," he said. "My first racehorse job was with Tom Voss, so I learned from the guys that make 'em go far."

That expertise was evident at Saratoga this past summer, when Phipps saddled the 7-year-old gelding Here Comes Art in a 1 3/8-mile turf route off a 23-month layoff. Sent off at better than 9-1, he led for every step but the last one.

"We were so proud of the way he ran," said Phipps, who noted that Here Comes Art went on to win a steeplechase race at Camden in November for Arch Kingsley, a friend from his boarding-school days.

Currently being readied for winter campaigns in Florida are several other runners well familiar to fans of New York racing. Among them are: Luna Charm, whose last start was a third in the Dam Little overnight stakes at Belmont at 15-1; Scientist, a close second in the Virgo Libra overnight stakes at 10-1 earlier this year; and Cops Fever, a maiden winner at Saratoga in his first start for Phipps.

The two big horses in the barn are Peace Chant, a veteran sprinter coming off a sixth-place finish in the De Francis Memorial Dash over a sloppy track, and Mehndi, a 2-year-old filly who hasn't been out since winning her debut at 19-1 back in July at Belmont.

"I'm looking at the Mr. Prospector at Gulfstream for Peace Chant," said Phipps. "He struggles over a heavier course, and Tampa has a deeper and sandier surface.

"Mehndi went through a major growth spurt. Without exaggeration, she's put on 350 pounds since her first race. We were originally hoping to run in the Miss Grillo and maybe take a shot in the Breeders' Cup, but her owners are horse people and we just decided to give her some more time. She's just started back under tack, so hopefully we'll get to see her run around March. She's a special one."