12/23/2002 12:00AM

When stars roved the Futurity


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The showdown between Kafwain and Toccet in Saturday's Hollywood Futurity is attractive on paper, and certainly has the potential to entertain.

But for all its perceived importance, its introductory fanfare back in 1981, and its subsequent late-season hype, the Futurity never seems to have the kind of national impact envisioned by its creators.

Except for once.

The one shining moment occurred on Dec. 12, 1982, at the end of a year that gave rise to such stars as Conquistador Cielo, Landaluce, Perrault, and Lemhi Gold. The stakes in the Futurity were high - as high as they could get - with Roving Boy, a son of Olden Times, and Copelan, a son of Susan's Girl, entering the race on dead-even terms for the Eclipse Award.

Never have the Futurity lines been drawn so clearly. With no Breeders' Cup around to skew the mix, the evidence was laid bare on the table, with one final round to go, out there on the track. After winning the Del Mar Futurity and the Norfolk Stakes, Roving Boy was the best of the West. But that meant nothing until he settled things with Copelan, New York's winner of the the Sanford, the Hopeful, the Futurity, and the Champagne.

The gauntlet went down a month before when Copelan lost a shocker to Bet Big in the Young America Stakes at The Meadowlands. To that point, Copelan had displayed no weakness. Even Sonny Hine, Bet Big's trainer, had been seriously impressed.

"I thought it was a million-to-one I'd ever run against him," Hine said of Copelan after arriving at Hollywood Park with Bet Big. "Then, when my colt beat him in the Young America, they tried to give him every kind of excuse. He's an absolutely top horse, but there's still a question if he can get a distance."

As for Roving Boy, Hine was still gathering intelligence.

"Never heard of him back East," Sonny said. "Though maybe I'll wish I had."

Hine was right to be concerned. Roving Boy was the real deal, bred and owned by Texas oilman Bob Hibbert and trained by Joe Manzi, the self-proclaimed "Godfather of Sports." At least, that's what it said on the nameplate gracing Manzi's Santa Anita desk.

Manzi died in 1989, at the age of 54, but while he was alive he wore his Italian heritage on his sleeve. When he was at home in his kitchen, he cooked up an old-world storm. As a trainer, he earned his stripes on the staff of Charlie Whittingham, and he learned his lessons well. It was Whittingham who put Hibbert and Manzi together in the late 1960's.

They had good luck, winning a number of stakes. Then Roving Boy hit the ground, and both men knew what they had.

"Joe saw him the year before," said Sandra Manzi, Manzi's wife. "He told Hibbert that the Olden Times colt was by far the best. He liked him from the minute he got to the track."

Sandra Manzi remembers the 1982 Futurity as if it happened last week. It was cold (low 50's by post time). It was dark (post time was 5:05 p.m.). And her husband wore a black suit, red tie, and a black cashmere topcoat. He looked like a banker.

"Maybe a Mafia banker," she said with a laugh.

"Joe was pretty calm that day," she went on. "He had all the confidence in the world in that horse. But that doesn't mean he took anything for granted. I remember he was worried about the lights, and what Roving Boy might do when the lights hit him in the face. If I recall, I think he worked him at least once at night before the race."

Her memory is perfect. On Dec. 4, eight days before the Futurity, Manzi worked Roving Boy late in the day, just as the Hollywood lights were coming on. The colt got a mile in 1:38.40. He also got a little stirred up.

"Better then than on Dec. 12," Joe Manzi said later.

The Futurity itself went past in a flash. The Manzi family jammed into Joe's box just past the finish line, while Hibbert watched from above, in the Directors' Room. At first, Sandra had trouble finding Roving Boy in the shadows of the backstretch. But there was no mistaking the instant that Eddie Delahoussaye let Roving Boy slip through on the inside and join the leaders, leaving Copelan in his dust.

"That was it," Sandra said. "He was going to beat Copelan. And that was what the race was all about. But then we look up and it's Desert Wine still up there. That can't be! He's already beaten Desert Wine before."

Roving Boy beat Desert Wine again, but not without a fight. At the end, the margin was a neck. Copelan, sporting an eye swollen from the sting of a dirt clod, trailed home a distant fifth.

After an emotional press conference, during which Joe Manzi campaigned without belaboring the obvious, the trainer slipped out a waist-high service door leading to the press box hallway. He was flush, his eyes still wide from the thrill, as he grabbed the first person he saw. Luckily, it was a friend.

"The Eclipse Award," Manzi said. "The Eclipse Award!" His voice crackled and sang, betraying his Brooklyn roots. "Do you realize what that means?!"

On that special night, it meant everything.