Leon Blusiewicz doesn't have to fill out a wish list for the holidays this year. His gift is already parked in his barn at Pimlico: a big, strong horse who can really run.
The colt's name is Millions, a 2-year-old who has won three of five starts and emerged as a possible major player in the 1999 Triple Crown series. Blusiewicz, 66, a fixture on the Maryland racing circuit for years, as Baltimore as the Orioles, didn't hesitate yesterday when asked if this was the best horse he'd ever trained.
"By far," he said with a broad smile, standing outside the colt's stall at Pimlico.
That's no small statement from a trainer who has won a handful of Grade I stakes races over the years with such horses as Snow Plow and Willa On The Move. But Millions operates on a higher plane.
"That's not just my opinion, either," Blusiewicz said. "When he ran a mile and an eighth for the first time, he went faster than Skip Away, Coronado's Quest and Victory Gallop ran in their first races at that distance. There's your proof."
Further proof is Millions' high standing in the Kentucky Derby future books in Las Vegas. Thanks to his easy win in the Laurel Futurity and his strong second in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct last month (despite a poor post position and a bumping incident in the stretch), Millions is a 25-1 Derby shot at the MGM Grand casino, behind only five horses out of more than 200 listed.
It's all testimony to racing's remarkable unpredictability. Blusiewicz had no horses to train just 16 months ago, his stable having dwindled from a high of 28 more than a decade ago.
"People just weren't coming to me," he said.
Now, suddenly, he has the horse he's always wanted, the "big horse" for which every trainer waits.
"And I can't go anywhere without people stopping me and asking how the horse is doing and wishing me luck," Blusiewicz said. "It's a lot of fun. This is what the racing business is all about."
The son of Polish immigrants who fled their homeland before World War II, Blusiewicz grew up on Eastern Avenue, went to minor-league baseball games at Oriole Park with his father, a tailor, and worked on tugboats off East Baltimore's docks. A back injury and his wife's urging led him to forsake the water for his real love, the racetrack.
Years earlier, his mother's father had raised horses that German and Russian soldiers plundered on their way through Poland.
"I like to think that means [horses] were in my blood," he said.
A keen student of equine bloodlines, he maintained a small, successful stable for years before losing momentum. When he ran out of horses last spring, he briefly worked for Nick Zito, an old friend. Then he went to a sale in Kentucky last September and bought three yearlings with his partner, Clayton Peters. They spent $34,000 for a son of Dehere, a popular sire who had been a champion 2-year-old.
The yearling was thin and had imperfect conformation, but Blusiewicz loved his breeding.
"[Hall of Fame jockey] Chris McCarron told me Dehere was the best 2-year-old he'd ever ridden," Blusiewicz said. "You have to pay attention when people like that tell you things like that."
Blusiewicz sent the colt to South Carolina to be broken and went to check on him 80 days later.
"I didn't even recognize him; that's how much he'd grown," Blusiewicz said.
When a jockey took the horse out on a training track for Blusiewicz to watch, they put on quite a show.
"I said, 'This sounds crazy, but he reminds me of Seattle Slew with the way he runs,' " Blusiewicz said. "And if he's like Seattle Slew, he's worth millions. That's where I got the name."
Several potential buyers offered Blusiewicz $100,000 before Millions was even in training, and other interested parties, including trainer D. Wayne Lukas, have eyed the colt throughout the year. Blusiewicz wants to sell 50 percent and still train the horse.
"I think he's a $3 million horse," he said. "We'll see what happens. But right now, no matter who comes at me [with an offer], no one else is going to train the horse [through the Triple Crown] but me. This horse does things in the morning [working out] that make your eyeballs fall out. I want to see it through."
Blusiewicz originally planned to take the colt to Florida for the Derby prep races at Gulfstream Park, but he has changed his mind. Millions now will base at a training center in Camden, S.C., until March, and then run in one prep race in Maryland or New York leading up to the Wood Memorial Stakes at Belmont Park in April.
"I'm going to go the old-fashioned route, the classic route," Blusiewicz said. "A lot of horses have come out of the Carolinas and had success [in Triple Crown races]. Damascus. Hoist the Flag. Sea Hero."
The obvious goal is Churchill Downs in Louisville on the first Saturday in May, but Blusiewicz's "real goal" is the Preakness, his hometown race, in which he has never entered a horse despite all his years at Pimlico.
"This is the horse to go with," Blusiewicz said. "He doesn't have any weaknesses. He's smart, ships well, has a great disposition. He can run anywhere in a race. He's just one of those special horses, one of those really, really good ones. I'm as thrilled as can be to have him."
Pub Date: 12/16/98