HALLANDALE, Fla. -- About 8:30 a.m. yesterday, two old friends sat in the grandstand at Gulfstream Park, not saying much, waiting to catch a glimpse of the animal that might take them to the Kentucky Derby.
One man, Tony Tornetta, accompanied by his daughter, Maryann, and grandson, Tony, sat in a wheelchair, hooked up to an inhalator. He has spent a lifetime in the racing game and has dished out the bucks, chiefly made from a large commercial truck dealership he owns near Philadelphia, buying thoroughbreds.
But Tornetta now has terminal cancer, and this could very well be his last chance to come up with "the big horse."
His pal, Charlie Hesse, let him in on the ownership of the colt, named Storm Tower, earlier this winter after the horse made a successful comeback from knee surgery and looked like he might be something special.
"There he is," trainer Ben Perkins Jr. said and pointed out a neatly made, not overly large, but perfectly balanced bay colt, about to break off at the quarter pole. Exercise rider, Leo "Lucky" Murray, had a stranglehold on the animal as he worked through the stretch, two furlongs in 24 2/5 seconds and galloped out three-eighths of a mile in 38.4.
There was no wasted action and the move was just a little pipe opener to keep the horse sharp for his race today in the Florida Derby.
A lot is riding on the horse's crucial performance this afternoon, not only for Tornetta and Hesse, but also for Perkins and Laurel-based jockey Rick Wilson.
Even though Perkins, and his father, Ben Sr., run one of the most successful stables on the East Coast, they have not been thrust, so far, into the Triple Crown spotlight.
Storm Tower, undefeated in four career starts, could be the horse to do it.
"We had Five Star Flight and Tank, 3 year-olds we thought could be any kind of horse," the younger Perkins said. "But because of injuries they didn't make it [to the Triple Crown races]."
Five Star Flight set the pace in the 1981 Florida Derby, but tired and finished ninth. Tank won the 1991 Garden State Stakes, but injured a tendon and was retired.
Track oddsmaker Chuck Streva has made Storm Tower a lukewarm favorite at 3-1. But he is likely to go off at shorter odds. In his four previous starts, the horse has been favored and never has let his backers down.
"If he was sired by Danzig and was trained by someone like Shug [McGaughey], he'd be 1-100," Perkins said. "How many undefeated 3- year-olds are there at this time of year? But he's not fashionably bred [by Irish Tower, who stands for $7,500 in Kentucky] and we're not a New York outfit. He hasn't won by big margins or in sensational times. But he's done what he's had to do to win. Also, we've been trying to keep our mouth shut about the horse. We've been disappointed before. But we're really excited and have a lot of confidence in him."
If Storm Tower wins, Perkins and his dad plan to prep him for the Kentucky Derby at the Bowie Training Center.
"We will put him on a flight with Woods of Windsor and Wild Zone [other 3 year-old stakes winners] next Friday," Perkins said.
"He will have run four times here this winter and will need a little rest. Then we'll put the work to him and ship him to Churchill Downs about 10 days before the Derby. Jimmy Croll took the same kind of route with Bet Twice and he told us he thinks that's why he still had plenty of horse left and won the Belmont Stakes [in 1987]."
Perkins said the outfit feels the pressure today "because so much is at stake. But the real pressure came at Monmouth Park last summer when he made his first start. Charlie [Hesse] had spent a lot of money for him on our recommendation and that's when we needed to see if he could run."
Hesse had outspent Ben Cohen, former owner of Pimlico Race Course, in a bidding duel for Storm Tower last spring at the Calder 2- Year-Old in Training Sales. Hesse had put a limit of $180,000 on the horse, but had to go to $245,000 to get him.
Perkins added if Storm Tower does get beat today, the stable will be able to handle it.
"Tony Tornetta has been a great owner of ours for a long time and we see now what he's going through," Perkins said. "It puts the whole thing into perspective. We want to see the horse win, but he is just here for their pleasure. There are a lot of things more important in life than racehorses."
But, no doubt about it, he added, taking an unbeaten colt to Louisville as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby would be quite a thrill.
Florida Derby facts and figures
Where/When: Gulfstream Park; today, 4:40 p.m.
Who/Distance: 3-year-olds, Grade I; 1 1/8 miles
Purse/distribution: $500,000; 1st, $300,000; 2nd, $95,000; 3rd, $50,000; 4th, $30,000; 5th, $15,000; 6th $10,000
TV: Channels 13, 7