05/31/2010 11:00PM

A trip from longshot to sure shot

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Forgive Joe Cantey if he doesn't show up at Belmont Park this Saturday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Temperence Hill's 53-1 shocker over Derby winner Genuine Risk and Preakness winner Codex. Lord willing and the creek don't rise, he'll be in Mississippi, blowing plates out of the sky at the U.S. Open Sporting Clays Championship near Harrah's Casino in Tunica.

"If the Mississippi River is flooded, I'll find a television somewhere to watch the race," said the former trainer, now proprietor of Heritage Farm Shooting Sports near his native Camden, S.C.

Such a world seems light years removed from that day in June of 1980 when Temperence Hill entered the Belmont so far below the radar his name was spelled "Temperance" on a CBS television graphic. That was no way to treat an Arkansas Derby winner, but then his people thought so little of the colt's early development they didn't even nominate him to any of the stops along the Triple Crown trail.

Owner John Ed Anthony paid $20,000 to supplement Temperence Hill to the Belmont, doing so on the shaky evidence of a distant fifth in the Pennsylvania Derby and a third-place finish five days later at Belmont in an allowance race on the grass. Seven days after that, the colt was sent forth in the third jewel of the Triple Crown. Did I mention he was 53-1?

"New Yorkers are great handicappers, but they're kind of like Missourians -- you gotta show 'em before they'll believe you," said Cantey, now 64. "I always knew he could run all day. But even though he'd won the Arkansas Derby, by the time we got to New York nobody'd really ever heard of him."

By sunset, Temperence Hill had become the freakish, mud-splattered darling of the hour, and by the end of the season he was the 3-year-old champion of all he surveyed, after adding the Travers, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and the Super Derby to his growing reputation.

Cantey, who also trained the Met Mile winner Cox's Ridge, could have walked away from the racing game that rainy Belmont afternoon and left an everlasting impression. As it was, he lasted only another eight years.

"I ate, slept, and breathed training racehorses," Cantey said. "I just loved it. After doing it for so long, seven days a week, morning and afternoon, I woke up one morning without that burning desire to go to the barn. It was the first time in a long, long time I didn't have a really good horse in the barn. I knew it was either leave then or I'd die in New York. So I slipped out under the cover of darkness."

Cantey was in his early 40's, with a 5-year-old son from his marriage to network racing broadcaster Charlsie Cantey. (Though later divorced, both parents raised Joseph B. Cantey III, who is now a pediatrician, with a two-month-old son of his own.) Once resettled in South Carolina, on the farm owned by his father and grandfather before him, Cantey fell in with friends who were into the sporting clay scene. It held little appeal.

"I kept telling them if it didn't have feather on it, I didn't want to shoot it," Cantey said. "But they finally talked me into going down there with them, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I love to shoot anyway, and this has a lot of variety, a lot of angles and variables. I came to like it so much, about a year later I built my own sporting clay course here on the farm, and been at it ever since."

No kidding. From reluctant participant, Cantey has become a six-time World Champion who continues to compete at the highest levels of the veteran's division of international sporting clay shooters. Last year, he won the title at the World Championships held in Warrnambool, on the southern coast of Australia. For those who are interested, Cantey's weapon of choice is a Beretta, over and under.

"It's the competition I love," Cantey said. "I'll be going to Italy for another World Championship in about another month. There's not much prize money -- in fact, by the time you finish paying your way, you end up losing money -- but it's a lot of fun."

Temperence Hill, on the other hand, ran out earnings of $1,130,452 during his 3-year-old campaign, an impressive amount in that pre-Breeders' Cup era. To that point, the only other horses of any age to have won a million or more in a season were Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, and Temperence Hill did it without running in two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

"We probably wouldn't have run him in the Derby even if he had been nominated," Cantey said. "The Derby's awful early in the year to be running a mile and a quarter. Anyway, I was pretty notorious for not running young horses very much. We ran Temperence Hill three times at 2, and I think he got beat about 20 lengths every time. We put him away, then when he came back at 3 he'd turned from a child into a pretty good-looking teenager."

Cantey's recollections of Belmont Day itself always begin and end with the condition of the track.

"It was muddy, and I always had this feeling he really didn't like it," Cantey said. "I struggled all day long whether or not to put stickers on him. I never really liked using them, but I thought maybe they might give this horse a little confidence.

"I even went to Allen Jerkens and Woody Stephens to ask what they thought," Cantey added. "I don't remember what the answers were, but about an hour before the race I decided to put the stickers on. Evidently, it didn't hurt him."

Temperence Hill died in 2003 in Thailand, where he served at stud the last seven years of his life.

"Conformationally, he was almost perfect," Cantey said. "He never had any physical problems up to the day he retired. He was just a real nice horse."