INGLEWOOD, CALIF. — INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Sonny Hine and Skip Away weren't here yet. D. Wayne Lukas was stabled 30 miles away at Santa Anita, which was fine with everybody here at Hollywood Park. Bill Mott was here, gracious as usual, but with no Cigar.
So who was the short guy in the windbreaker and jeans nearly lost yesterday in a sea of reporters and TV crews?
That was Patrick Byrne, a horse trainer little known until this spring, but now the hottest horseman in the business. He trains three horses who might be favored Saturday in Breeders' Cup races, including one sensational 2-year-old colt who could defy the odds and be voted Horse of the Year.
"An overnight sensation," Byrne said, repeating a description of himself often heard these days. "An overnight sensation 20 years in the making."
Byrne, 41, is a native of England now based at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. In 1995, he won five races -- all year -- but this year he's a leading candidate for the Eclipse Award as top trainer.
His 2-year-old phenom Favorite Trick is undefeated after seven starts. The dark-bay son of Phone Trick has won at distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland, Churchill Downs and Saratoga. Six of the wins were stakes, including one Grade III, two Grade IIs and the Grade I Hopeful Stakes.
Few horses at 2 have compiled such a record. In 1974, Foolish Pleasure won all seven starts. In 1952, Alfred G. Vanderbilt's Native Dancer won all eight.
On Saturday, if Favorite Trick wins the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he could become the first 2-year-old Horse of the Year since Secretariat in 1972. (Not even Secretariat was perfect that year, winning seven, but losing two.)
"People ask me to compare Favorite Trick and Secretariat," Byrne said. "I can't do that. I mean, Secretariat was Secretariat. But this horse has been incredible as a 2-year-old. When's the next 2-year-old going to come along and do what he's done?"
Byrne also trains Countess Diana, a 2-year-old filly with deep roots in Maryland. She will probably be favored in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Richter Scale, the third Byrne trainee at Hollywood Park, could be favored in the $1 million Sprint.
"A lot of these guys around here start believing it's them. But it's those things out there," Byrne said, nodding toward the horses, including Favorite Trick, walking outside Barn 63 on the Hollywood Park backstretch. "If I didn't have those, I'd be back at Churchill running maiden 50s [maidens in $50,000 claiming races]."
A fifth-generation horseman, Byrne dropped out of high school in England to work at Lambourne, the training center familiar to readers of Dick Francis mystery novels. Byrne wanted to be a jockey.
He moved to the United States in 1978 and worked as an exercise rider for such horsemen as LeRoy Jolley and David Whiteley. Then he worked as an assistant trainer for Howie Tesher in New York before breaking out on his own in 1986. He moved to Keeneland four years later, and then to Churchill Downs in 1996.
This spring, Byrne accomplished the incredible. He saddled 17 horses at Churchill Downs -- and won 14 races (eight in a row; nine if you include his last one at Keeneland). In the other three races at Churchill, his horses finished second.
Then at Saratoga, his horses swept five of the prestigious stakes for 2-year-olds.
For the year, Byrne's horses -- he started out with 20, but now has about 30 -- have won 43 races in 121 starts. That's a phenomenal winning percentage of 35.5 percent.
"I don't want to pat myself on the back," Byrne said. "But the trick is managing the horses, finding races for them they can win. That gets harder once you get into stakes company, but if I give myself any credit at all, it's in the management."
The rest of the credit, Byrne said, belongs to the owners who send him horses. Joseph LaCombe, a retired executive for a Cincinnati auditing firm, paid $100,000 for Favorite Trick in February at a sale of 2-year-olds in Ocala, Fla.
Nancy and Richard Kaster, house builders and developers from Wisconsin, bought a pregnant Maryland-bred mare, T.V. Countess, three years ago from Dr. Herman J. Kossow. A dentist from Washington, the 81-year-old Kossow works with the Maryland trainer Carlos Garcia.
T.V. Countess's foal grew into Countess Diana. Countess Diana's sire, Deerhound, stood at Murmur Farm in Darlington until two weeks ago when the Kasters, enamored with the family, led a group that bought him and moved him to Kentucky.
The Kasters sent the young filly, Countess Diana, back to Maryland. Garcia's wife, Carol, broke her at Sagamore Farm, and then Garcia saddled her for her maiden voyage at Pimlico.
In her debut June 6, Countess Diana streaked 4 1/2 furlongs in 51 LTC 4/5 seconds, smashing a 55-year-old track record.
After that, in a private deal that benefited everyone, Garcia said, Countess Diana was transferred to Byrne in Kentucky for greater exposure and opportunity.
"Carlos did a great job with her," Byrne said.
Countess Diana has won four of five, including one Grade III stakes, two Grade IIs and the Grade I Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga.
After the Breeders' Cup, Byrne said, he will send Countess Diana and Favorite Trick to Florida on six-week vacations. Next year, he will point Countess Diana at the Kentucky Oaks.
And Favorite Trick?
"I'm not even going to mention the D-word," Byrne said, referring to the Kentucky Derby.
The son of a sprinter, Favorite Trick may not be cut out for the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
"This colt right now is running through his pedigree," Byrne said. "I really don't know whether he'll go a mile and a quarter or not. But right now, that's the farthest thing from my mind. He's got a pretty big race coming up right here this Saturday."
What: 14th running of racing's championship day; seven races worth $11 million, including $4 million Classic
Where: Hollywood Park, Inglewood, Calif.
TV: Chs. 11, 4, 1: 30-6 p.m.
Pub Date: 11/05/97