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'Ops' win would put smiles on young faces Charity stands to gain from Caesars victory

When Ops Smile wins at the racetrack, his backers at the betting windows aren't the only ones who profit. Needy children around the world benefit, as well.

Named after Operation Smile, an international organization that performs surgery on young people with cleft palates, Ops Smile can guarantee the organization a hefty contribution by winning today's $400,000 Caesars International Handicap at Atlantic City Race Course in New Jersey.

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The 1 3/16-mile race on turf will be televised on ESPN about 4: 40 p.m.

A handsome 5-year-old gray bred, owned and trained by Marylanders, Ops Smile has blossomed into one of the top turf runners in the country. The Daily Racing Form rates him the 19th-best horse in North America.

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His trainer, Bill Boniface, and principal owners Jackie and Roger Schipke have plotted a schedule that includes the nation's richest turf races. The culmination of what they hope will be an Eclipse Award-winning year would be the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf in November at Hollywood Park in California.

"Before the Manhattan, they wrote that the best turf horses in the East were running," Boniface said of Ops Smile's last race, the $200,000 Manhattan Handicap at Belmont Park. "So since he won it, he's the best, right?"

Ops Smile won the Manhattan, the race before the Belmont Stakes, in typical fashion. He eased out of the starting gate with no more urgency than if he were jogging down the driveway for the mail. But entering the final turn, he shifted gears, gathered steam and circled the field for his first victory in a prestigious Grade I race.

He paid a staggering $44.80 to win. And his winner's check of $120,000 prompted a sizable donation to Operation Smile.

The Schipkes, as primary owners of Ops Smile, designate about 10 percent of his earnings for Operation Smile. Based in Norfolk, Va., the organization is composed of volunteer medical teams that operate on children and young adults in 15 developing nations and the United States. Operation Smile recently opened a branch in Baltimore.

The teams have performed more than 40,000 operations, primarily on cleft palates, since 1982 when Dr. William T. Magee, a Norfolk plastic surgeon, and his wife Kathleen S., a nurse and social worker, founded Operation Smile.

Magee was also an owner of a young horse bred by Mount Airy philanthropist Jim Ryan at his Ryehill Farm. A son of the outstanding racehorse and sire Caveat and the 17-year-old mare Northern Sting, the horse was named Ops Smile, with a portion of his earnings earmarked for Operation Smile.

The Schipkes and two friends bought Ops Smile early in his 3-year-old year believing he might be a Kentucky Derby horse. Instead, he developed into a turf specialist specializing in bad luck.

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When he was poised for a breakthrough performance, he seemed always to run into another horse at his peak, such as Da Hoss, Sandpit and Diplomatic Jet.

Once, he injured himself in the starting gate and missed half a year. In last year's Caesars, his jockey, Robbie Davis, missed the race because bad weather grounded his helicopter in New York at the last minute.

Twenty minutes before post time, a frantic Boniface had to find a jockey, any jockey. He discovered one Keith Whitley, unemployed for the race.

Boniface's comment about Whitley now: "I never had used him before. I never have used him since."

For today's Caesars, Boniface took no chances. He made sure Davis would drive down from New York. But lo and behold, Davis had to back out because an injured knee, recently operated on, has been slow to recover.

So Boniface hired Edgar Prado, Maryland's leading jockey as well as the winningest jockey in North America. Prado has ridden Ops Smile eight times, winning three and finishing second twice.

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Is losing Davis, a top-10 rider in New York, and gaining Prado more bad luck, or a turn of good luck? And is the surprisingly small but talented field for the Caesars a blessing for a late-running demon such as Ops Smile, or just another curse?

After such standouts as Gentlemen, Marlin, Always A Classic, Labeeb, Mr. Bluebird and Sandpit, who won the last two Caesars, defected for one reason or another, a field of four emerged: Ops Smile, at 2-1 in the morning line; Influent at 4-1, and the Allen E. Paulson entry of Flag Down and Geri at 3-5.

Trained by Bill Mott, Geri once was considered the next Cigar. Mott even bestowed upon him the honor of living in Cigar's old stall at Belmont Park.

But Geri is no Cigar on dirt, so Mott transferred him to grass -- the opposite strategy he employed with Cigar. After winning an allowance race on turf in New York, Geri will sample the grass for the second time in the Caesars.

Pub Date: 6/28/97


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