LAUREL -- The first thing Paul McGee wanted to do after claiming Bet the Pot was to get rid of him. That was 33 months, 34 races and $251,000 ago.
McGee and his 6-year-old gelding are back in town, to go fotheir biggest pot yet in the $200,000 General George tomorrow.
Bet the Pot has won nine races and been in the money 24 of 34 times since McGee claimed him for $25,000 at Churchill Downs in May 1988, and immediately wished he hadn't.
"He came back with a cut on his back leg where he'd cuhimself, and it was all infected," recalled McGee, who was 25 at the time. "I figured we'd bought a lemon."
Compounding the classic question, whether the horse wa"better than an empty stall," was the stark fact that McGee did not have an empty stall. That occurred to him as he put the halter on Bet the Pot in the Churchill Downs paddock. A trainer helped with that problem, but there were others.
"We'll run him for a ham sandwich," McGee glumly adviseco-owner Jim Shields, meaning he would enter Bet the Pot in a $5,000 claiming race, Churchill's lowest classification, and get rid of him.
But Bet the Pot had to be prepared for such a race, and in thprocess McGee found that he suffered from a severe case of intestinal worms.
After attending to the horse's "little troubles" for a couple oweeks, McGee asked Dr. Alex Harthill, the storied veterinarian, to take a look at him.
The young trainer had paraded his horse only a few steps whehe heard Harthill's sardonic appraisal: "Shoot the SOB and get yourself another one."
McGee, who was (and is) his own groom and exercise rider, persisted with his care. One morning, galloping Bet the Pot, he "set him down" for serious work.
"He could run," McGee said. "I was setting out for a half-mile i:51 or :52, but he worked a bullet [fastest time of the morning] in :48 and change."
McGee, a Louisville native, shipped Bet the Pot to Laurel, wherelder brother Marty is a handicapper. He was so-so in three starts under jockey Mike Hunter, then confirmed his trainer's faith. He won a good allowance race at 12-1.
In the money in five of his next six starts, Bet the Pot was on hiway. Back at Churchill Downs on June 18, 1989, the winner's circle was crowded with McGees and friends after Bet the Pot scored by two lengths in the $49,350 neo-classic Aristides (named for the first Kentucky Derby winner). He equaled the 22-year-old track record of 1:16 for 6 1/2 furlongs.
Last year Bet the Pot earned $109,008, finishing in the money i11 of 15 starts. "Even in the races where he didn't get a check, he had excuses," said McGee. "He was making a move in the Churchill Downs Handicap [last Derby day] when he was bumped, hard. Kent [jockey Kent Desormeaux] said he really got hammered."
Clearly an affection has developed between the young man anhis scrupulously honest horse. "He's a class act," McGee said. "So easy to train. I don't have to work him much in the morning because when he gallops he almost runs off with me. He gets enough out of that."
Bet the Pot will be in tough tomorrow in the seven-furlonGeneral George. Fire Plug, the 8-year-old gelding who seems to be a perennial, is seeking his 28th victory in his 50th start, and he's coming off a Laurel victory in 1:15 3/5, one tick off the track record.
Conglomerate trainer Wayne Lucas is sending Profit Key froCalifornia, with Jose Santos to ride him.
But Bet the Pot is probably as fit as he gets. On Feb. 2, as 6-favorite, he won by 2 1/2 lengths in the Forego at Turfway Park (nee Latonia). It was a strong field, including $450,000 winner David L's Rib, and the time was 1:09 2/5, two-fifths off the track record.
"He lay third going down the back side," McGee said, "six oeight lengths behind." A front-runner when he first won for McGee, the gelding came from off the pace in all his victories last year.
"I took the blinkers off him for the Aristides," McGee said. "think," jockey Charlie Woods said after that $33,702 triumph, "Paul has found the horse's hole card."
And Paul McGee's.