NEW FREEDOM, Pa. -- The big mare delivered her baby in a dim, unmarked stall in the foaling barn at Pin Oak Lane Farm, in the silence of the rolling hills and tall poplar groves of southern York County. It was just past a chilly midnight in late March 1989. From the beginning, the dark bay foal had it rough.
A blood test revealed he had almost no immunities, the result of not receiving enough colostrum, or baby milk, at the end of the pregnancy. "It was as if he had AIDS," said Dr. William Solomon, the veterinarian who owns Pin Oak Lane Farm.
Two transfusions of immunity-rich plasma corrected the problem. The baby would live. But only the most foolish pipe dreamer would have suggested that, of the 48,022 foals born in North America in 1989, this sickly horse would be the one to win the Kentucky Derby.
It was not just his poor health. Racing legends do not begin this way. Derby winners are born with famous bloodlines on glorious Kentucky farms. They are not born without immunities just a few miles north of Hunt Valley Mall, on a farm known more for producing trotting horses, to a mother who, said the owner, was "a total dog" on the track.
But such is the fitting beginning of the story of Lil E. Tee, perhaps the longest shot ever to win the Kentucky Derby -- maybe not on the tote board, but in life.
He did win the Derby last Saturday at Churchill Downs, and he will lead the field of the 117th Preakness Saturday at Pimlico Race Course. You can look it up. But you might not believe it.
It is not just that Lil E. Tee was born in a state that had never produced a Derby winner. Or that his mother all but barked. Or that his owner just wanted a mediocre horse to run at little Philadelphia Park.
It is that the colt almost died not long after his first birthday and was so thin and ragged at 18 months that he was turned down by the operators of a horse sale, and virtually given away to a blacksmith.
He has lived an orphan's life -- seven barns, five states, five owners, three trainers -- and spent his first year in the shadow of Interstate 295 near Trenton, N.J., not exactly the cradle of champions.
He fell so deep into the sport's cavernous underbelly that making it back to the top was about as likely as finding a million dollars in a shed row one morning.
But since it has happened, racing truly has a champion for the $2 bettor. Lil E. Tee is owned now by Arkansas multimillionaire Cal Partee, but his roots are not in the small coterie of big-shouldered owners and trainers who control racing. He comes from the great mass of ordinariness that composes the other 95 percent, in which average people race average horses for a lot more love than money.
A matter of luck
There would be no story without Larry I. Littman, a 61-year-old Philadelphian who made a killing selling devices that gauged the temperature of molten steel. He bred Lil E. Tee.
"But don't make me out to sound like a genius," he said last week. "What happened was I got totally lucky."
It is a maddening and mysterious art, breeding horses, guessing how blood will run. There are as many theories as horsemen, and, as Lil E. Tee proves, no guarantee that the child of a champion will beat the child of a Mr. Ed. Or in this case, a Mrs. Ed.
Littman had a mare named Eileen's Moment, a big, handsome filly who couldn't run. "She went in slow motion," Littman said. "It was a thrill the time she finished next to last. You know how they say some great horses don't want anyone running in front of them? She didn't want anyone running behind her."
After she ran last in five of six starts, earning a whopping $570, Littman pulled her off the track and began breeding her. He had bought her more to breed anyway. Her grandfather was What a && Pleasure, the sire of 1975 Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
Eileen's Moment came up barren on her first try, then produced a foal that sold for $45,000. Encouraged, Littman bred her to At the Threshold, an obscure stallion who ran third in the 1984 Derby and was a grandson of Buckpasser.
From studying lineage books, Littman saw promise in mixing the Buckpasser and What a Pleasure bloodlines. But not too much promise. He boarded Eileen's Moment during her pregnancy at Billy Boniface's Bonita Farm in Harford County, then sent her to ++ deliver at Pin Oak Lane Farm because he wanted a Pennsylvania-bred for races restricted to Pennsylvania horses. Not exactly great expectations. We're talking minor leagues.
"I just wanted a nice little horse for the Pennsylvania program," Littman said.
An unlikely birthplace
Only 29 of the previous 117 Derby winners were bred outside Kentucky, none at a less likely spot than Pin Oak Lane Farm, a postcard-pretty, 400-acre farm and medical center that produces horses a year, but only 25 thoroughbreds.
"With the quality being born at this farm in 1989, the chances of a Derby winner being born here were next to impossible," Solomon said.
Soon, the foal went to Littman's Lil Stable farm in Pennington, N.J., near where George Washington crossed the Delaware River to attack the British, and not too far from Exit 7 on the New Jersey Turnpike. The Lil name comes from Littman's initials. He gives most of his horses a Lil name. The new foal quickly became Lil E. Tee.
"He'd go out in the field with his buddies and realize his mommy wasn't there," said Mary Deppa, the farm manager at Lil Stable, "and he'd start screaming his head off. She'd just sit there and roll her eyes, like, 'There goes that stupid kid again.' We started calling him E.T. because he was always phoning home for mom. He was funny."
Funny-looking, too. "He was very big, and wasn't a good mover at all," Deppa said. "He was high-headed. He was like a giraffe."
Then, shortly after his first birthday, he came down with colic, a buildup of gas and pressure that troubles horses because they can't vomit. It sounds minor, but it is one of the most common causes of death among horses.
"The colic creates terrible stress just short of shock," Solomon said. "If a horse needs colic surgery, 30 to 40 percent don't survive, and another 30 to 40 percent never run because of post-surgical problems. The chances of getting the horse back into highly competitive racing -- forget it."
Littman wanted to avoid surgery, but it became inevitable. Lil E. Tee was treated with tranquilizers and a lubricating fluid, but the symptoms returned. "We finally said, 'OK, let's open him up,' " Deppa said.
Lil E. Tee's intestines were blocked. A horse has dozens of yards of intestine. Lil E. Tee had most of his removed.
"It's a good thing we operated when we did," Deppa said, "or we might have lost him."
Lil E. Tee was in the clinic for several weeks, then stayed in his stall for 30 days at the farm. He was hand walked around the shed and displayed little appetite.
"He had trouble putting his weight back on," Deppa said. "If I had to pick any horse to go on and win the Derby, he would have been the last."
A hard sell
When Littman soon decided to sell the colt, unable to reconcile the mounting medical bills with the lack of promise, he almost could not give the colt away. Lil E. Tee was sent to Ocala, Fla., for a sale of 2-year-olds. The sales company turned the colt ++ down.
"The horse was very thin," said Brent Furnung, Littman's sales agent in Ocala. "I just thought he had not been cared for. I just thought he'd been out in a field somewhere and someone hadn't been feeding him. They didn't tell me he had been so sick. I guess they didn't want to tell me, thinking no one would want him."
Littman told Furnung just to get rid of the colt. "I just don't think he really liked the colt," Furnung said. But others did. An Ocala horseman, Chuck Wieneke, had seen potential. Wieneke's business was pinhooking horses: buying them cheaply, fixing them up and reselling them. Raised on a horse farm in Virginia, he had a knack.
"This horse was in bad shape, looked like both his legs were coming out of the same socket," Wieneke said, "but, when I looked at him, I could see what he might look like in 30 or 40 days."
Wieneke bought the horse for $3,000 and found a partner: his blacksmith, Mike Paramore. Their deal was that Paramore would put up the money and not charge Wieneke for training the colt. They would split any profit. Littman received $2,000, which was the price "after commissions," Furnung said.
"Looking back, I feel bad for Littman," Paramore said. "I think he got some bad info or he would still own the horse. Everyone said the horse looked bad, but I had three good horsemen look at him, and they all loved him. It was like he [Littman] sold on the advice of one man [Furnung]. No good horseman saw this colt until after he was sold."
Littman disagrees. "My call," he said. "There was no doubt in our minds. Myself, my manager, we all agreed that the best thing was to cut our losses [and sell]. God knows we never figured to hear from him again."
Anyway, Lil E. Tee moved into Wieneke's barn in Ocala. He was wormed. He got his teeth cleaned. He was given a steroid to kick-start his development. He regained his appetite, eating a rack of alfalfa a day.
"He just needed some care, that was the whole thing," Wieneke said. "He started running great after he started looking good."
Healthy, but a racehorse?
But there were still doubts about him as a racehorse. He still ran with his head high and jumped at noises. Wieneke put cotton in the colt's ears and eliminated the jumpiness. Then he got the colt to lower his head with a shadow roll, a leather band that goes on top of the nose and below the eyes, and points the head down.
For the first time, Lil E. Tee began to show real promise.
"My wife does the riding for me," Wieneke said, "and she would go out and gallop him in the morning and come back saying the horse had almost scared her, he was so strong. She said maybe he was the best thing she'd ever had her hands on."
Wieneke and Paramore entered the colt in an April sale in Ocala. The bidding quickly moved beyond $20,000. One of the bidders was Paramore, who had put aside enough money to satisfy one of his dreams, buying a horse to race. He bid $22,000 on Lil E. Tee. "I liked the colt a lot," he said.
He lost out by $3,000 to Al Jevremovic, a 60-year-old hotel owner from Fort Lauderdale. Paramore wound up buying another horse that he has run in New York. In other words, he just missed making his first buy a Kentucky Derby winner. It was as if his $20 million lottery ticket was one digit off.
"My trainer in New York called and said, 'Mike, I'm so sorry,' " Paramore said last week. "I just laughed. It's OK. The truth is I probably would have taken the [$200,000] offer for the colt a few months later, like he [Jevremovic] did."
Jevremovic had been a jockeys' agent 30 years ago, then gone into the hotel business with two partners and made enough to get back into the game, but always looking more for a profit than a Derby dream.
"I buy and sell," Jevremovic said. "That's what I wanted with this horse, a profit. But it's funny. I remember he [Wieneke] told me about this horse before he bought it. He said, 'I know it's a raggedy-looking thing, Al, but this horse is going to be a champion.' Chuck is great that way. He can picture them."
Jevremovic moved Lil E. Tee to his barn at Calder Race Course in Miami, where his longtime trainer, Mike Trivigno, went to work in the heat and humidity of the tropical spring and summer. A long way from Exit 7.
"We went slow with him," Trivigno said. "We got him galloping up to a mile and a half, then gradually [racing] three-eighths, a half, five-eighths. We went through the gate procedure. He looked great."
On to the track
Finally, it was time for a race. It was almost a year to the day since his colic surgery when Lil E. Tee stepped onto the track for the fourth race at Calder on Sept. 28, 1991. He finished second in the 6-furlong race to a colt named I'm a Big Leaguer. Six days later, he tried again, this time a 7-furlong race. He won by 11 1/2 lengths.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, we got something on our hands here,' " Jevremovic said. "This was a very aggressive, eager horse. I was thinking maybe he could run in the Tampa Bay Derby."
Jevremovic was not a big dreamer. But suddenly he was inundated with big offers. Cal Partee, who had finished third in the 1984 Kentucky Derby with Lil E. Tee's father, At the Threshold, took a look. So did the W.T. Young mega-stable.
"I set a price of $200,000, and Partee met it," Jevremovic said. "People say, 'Hey, you could have won the Derby.' I laugh. I just feel proud and happy. I sold him to the right people. People with experience. People who did the right thing. Maybe I never would have gone the route of the Derby. We don't go on the road. I might have gone to the Jersey Derby or one of the easier ones."
As it was, Lil E. Tee was shipped from Calder to Churchill Downs, to the barn of Lynn Whiting, Partee's trainer. The rest has been in the newspapers. Lil E. Tee finished in the money in four straight races, winning two, then won the Jim Beam Stakes and finished second in the Arkansas Derby.
"I only recently learned about his history, but, by the time I got him, he looked like a racehorse to me," Whiting said. "He's anything but a 97-pound weakling. He's probably 1,200 pounds, has an appealing look, a nice head, a kind eye, strong shoulders. He's big. Someone asked how could a horse that had so much trouble win the Derby. All I can say is he must have taken a Charles Atlas course."
They all watched on Derby day, screaming. Littman, the breeder. Deppa, the farm manager who named him. Paramore, the blacksmith who bought him once, but not twice. Wieneke, the pinhooker who saved him. Jevremovic, whose trainer taught the colt to race.
"I screamed like a fool," Mary Deppa said. "It's funny. I remember we were sitting with him at the clinic after his colic surgery, saying that here we were laughing at poor ol' E.T., but that one day we'd probably say we knew him when. Someone said that. I remember it. But it was a joke. We laughed."