07/19/2006 11:00PM

Winning days here again for old Al

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NEW YORK - With any luck, the year's most important racing still lies ahead, at Del Mar, Saratoga, the big fall races, and the Breeders' Cup. Still, it will be hard for the game to yield a more stirring and satisfying finish than the one in the ninth race at Canterbury Park last Saturday, when a 9-year-old gelding returned in a stakes race he had won five years earlier.

Al's Dearly Bred, a gray gelding by Waquoit from the Fappiano mare Dearly Bred (a full sister to 1992 Kentucky Derby runner-up Casual Lies), began his career as a claimer, haltered out of his career debut at Gulfstream on Valentine's Day in 2000 for $32,000. Owner John Castro had him for his next 41 starts, and Al became one of the steadiest grass horses in the Midwest. He won the 2001 Claiming Crown Emerald and went on to take such races as the Golden Pheasant and Mister Gus at Arlington and placed second to Mystery Giver in the 2003 running of the Grade 3 Carey Memorial Handicap at Hawthorne. Al was trained by Steve Standridge when he raced in Florida, but spent most of his time in the barn of leading Canterbury trainer Hugh Robertson.

By February 2005, Al seemed to have lost a step or two as he began his 8-year-old campaign in Florida, and he began running in open claimers for the first time in four years. Peter Walder took him for $25,000, but then Castro claimed him back for $32,000 in his next race and sold him to Robertson.

"I got him for next to nothing," Robertson told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week. "I always liked him, and I didn't want someone to buy and butcher him. We thought we'd try to get him back to the races, and when he was done, Mac could make him into a pony," he said, referring to his son, trainer Mac Robertson.

Hugh Robertson gave Al a year off from racing, then brought him back for a $16,000 tag at Canterbury this past June 11. Robertson thought no one would claim him off a 14-month layoff, but local owner Larry Cronin and trainer Marvin Johnson had been watching the old warrior in the mornings and thought he might have some racing left in him. Cronin has been racing claimers for over 20 years and once claimed Prince Compliance, a popular local runner, nine different times before retiring him.

Al won his comeback race, where his $16,000 tag qualified him for this year's Claiming Crown Emerald, and he took a $30,000 optional claimer in his next start. He wasn't as fast as he had been in his prime, and he was getting even feistier about dropping back to last early. Still, he was competitive on paper in the Emerald, and a combination of sentiment and his career record of 6 for 7 over the Canterbury turf course made him the tepid 7-2 second choice in a field of 10.

After a moderate first six furlongs of 1:11.22 in the Emerald, Al was dead last, 16 lengths behind the leaders.

"We tried to stay close early, but the horse wanted no part of it," jockey Derek Bell said later. "But he knew exactly what he was doing. As we came for home I saw his ears perk up."

Al was eight wide and still hopelessly behind, but up front the leaders were weaving. Horses from Hollywood, Colonial, and Woodbine took turns making the lead as Al began closing relentlessly on the far outside. At the finish, it was too close to call, and track announcer Paul Allen actually polled the crowd of 11,644 as to how the photo would turn out. First he asked how many people thought it had gone to Nooligan, a New York-bred who once ran in the Jersey Derby. There was a polite smattering of applause from his ticketholders. Then Allen asked how many people thought Al had gotten up, and the place went almost as wild as it did a moment later when the photo showed that the 2001 Emerald winner had won the 2006 Emerald by the same nose he had five years earlier. It was Al's 18th career victory in 49 starts and increased his bankroll to $529,844.

"I love horses with class," said Cronin, who had sold shares in Al's Dearly Bred to some friends and Johnson before the race. "And this one's a got a 55-gallon pail of it."

Can Al come back and win the Emerald for a third time, as a 10-year-old next year? It's an intriguing scenario, but there's one big problem: He would have to run for a tag of $25,000 or less between now and then to qualify, and it's unlikely the living legend of Canterbury will be back in for a tag anytime soon.