INDIANTOWN, Fla. -- Behrens, the likely favorite in North America's richest horse race, hasn't won in four months. That doesn't bother Behrens' trainer, James Bond.
"I'm a little bit enthusiastic. OK, a lot," Bond said yesterday at Payson Park. "I'm very biased. I can't help it. He's just a super horse who's never gotten the respect he deserves."
Behrens, the star of Bond's stable, would earn that respect with a victory Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.
Situated between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, the track will showcase thoroughbred racing with a three-day Breeders' Cup meet Friday through Sunday.
The highlight will be Saturday, as horses from around the globe compete in eight Breeders' Cup races worth $13 million. The grand prize will be the $4 million Classic. Only the $6 million Dubai World Cup offers a more enticing payoff.
Bond, a 42-year-old trainer with a farmer's work ethic, has been preparing Behrens for the culmination of his 1999 season at tranquil Payson Park, a training center for more than 500 horses a 90-minute drive north of Gulfstream Park.
Bond's trademark "007" marks his barns and saddlecloths. A down-to-earth workaholic, Harold James Bond has allowed himself one frill, adopting the symbol of the handsome English spy.
"I can honestly tell you, I have not watched four James Bond movies in my life," Bond said, laughing. "I haven't read any of the books. I'm not a ladies man. I don't drink martinis."
Bond is more comfortable here among the solitude, the overriding chorus of birds and this rural slice of Florida.
"I was born in the country and raised in the country," he said. "I hate cities. That's why I like it here. It's the same for the horses. For them, it's like coming back to where they started out in life. It's a happier environment."
Bond started out in a trailer park in Rochester, N.Y., as his father, Harold George Bond, worked part-time as a telephone lineman so he could indulge his passion for horses. The senior Bond trained various breeds, including thoroughbreds. He managed a small, gimpy stable at Finger Lakes Racetrack in Canandaigua, N.Y.
"He had a lot of big ankles, a lot of big knees and a lot of big tendons," Bond said of the condition of his father's horses. "The first four years of my life, I spent holding horses in ice tubs."
When Bond was 15, his father had a heart attack, prompting Bond to obtain his trainer's license the next year at the earliest age possible, 16. He had been galloping horses on the racetrack since he was 12.
After classes, he trained thoroughbreds. At graduation, his father gave him a choice of gifts: a horse or a car. Bond chose the horse, so his father claimed him a $1,500 filly.
"She was OK," Bond said. "But I should have taken the car."
His life's course was set. Bond became a full-time trainer at Finger Lakes, a struggling full-time trainer and, finally, a struggling part-time trainer. He took a job in a factory to make ends meet.
About the same time, prominent, wealthy horse owner Virginia Kraft Payson began looking for a trainer to nurture her young New York-breds until they became good enough to to be stabled at the major New York tracks.
Yesterday, Payson was present to tell some of the story herself, having stopped by to see Bond and watch some of her horses gallop. She's not exactly a stranger at the 350-acre Payson Park. She owns it. She and her husband, Charlie, now deceased, bought it in 1980.
Payson said she called people she knew and asked them: "Who's the best trainer at Finger Lakes?" The answer: "Well, this young James Bond, he's the Wayne Lukas of Finger Lakes."
When Payson went to meet him, she noticed how lovely his barn was, adorned with hanging baskets of flowers. Lukas, the Hall of Fame trainer, is known for his immaculate, landscaped barns.
"He had the prettiest barn at Finger Lakes," Payson said of Bond, "a barn and stable that looked like it was full of stakes horses. This was the man for me."
Trouble was, Bond's barn wasn't full of stakes horses. He trained about five cheap ones. Until Payson found him, he didn't know how long he could hang on.
"I can remember calling my wife and telling her, 'We're going to live,' " Bond said.
After successfully conditioning Payson's horses at Finger Lakes, Bond moved onto the bigger New York tracks.
His breakthrough horse was L'Carriere, a Payson homebred who finished second to Cigar in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Classic and then third to Cigar the next year in the inaugural Dubai World Cup.
Now, Bond works for seven or eight owners and trains their 61 horses, including Val's Prince, a strong contender in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf, and the powerful Behrens, a winner of eight races and $2.8 million. Payson owns neither horse.
"What I like about him," Payson said, "is that he hasn't changed one bit since I day I met him. He still looks after every detail.
"I've always thought horse racing was 15 percent luck and 85 percent how you handled your horses. No other business operates with a 15 percent wild card. But you can get that full 85 percent by paying attention to detail," she said
Bond seldom races horses at 2, believing they're better off when they're more mature, mentally and physically. He hasn't started a horse in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness and has started only one (Raffie's Majesty) in the Belmont -- all races for 3-year-olds.
He sent Behrens into competition for the first time shortly after he turned 3. He won easily at Gulfstream Park, but underwent surgery afterward for the removal of a small chip from his right front ankle. At 4, he underwent surgery for the insertion of a screw into a hairline fracture in his left rear leg.
But this year at 5, Behrens has been splendid, finishing first or second in eight races, all graded stakes, seven of them Grade I or II.
As the other top older horses fell by the wayside -- Silver Charm, Free House, Real Quiet, Victory Gallop -- Behrens persevered and stepped to the head of his class.
Bond, who often touts his horses, has touted Behrens most of all. He loves the horse in the Classic.
And Bond loves -- and appreciates -- what talented runners such as Behrens, what Payson and his other owners, and what his own strong work ethic have done for his career, his wife and their two children.
"My wife and I talk three times a day, and probably three times a week I tell her, 'Can you believe it?' " Bond said. "I can't tell you how fortunate I am."
What: Breeders' Cup; eight races worth $13 million
Where: Gulfstream Park, Hallandale, Fla.
TV: 1 p.m. to 5: 30 p.m., Ch. 11
Richest race: $4 million Classic
Classic favorite: Behrens