Trainer Robinson surges to front

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's all downhill from here. Holly Robinson knows her phenomenal streak will end now that it's in the newspaper.

She's as superstitious as they come. And race-trackers are notorious for their superstitions. They're also an endearing blend of realist and optimist.

"It's like you've got a wet bag of groceries, and the bottom's going to fall out anytime," she says. "But until it does, I'm going to enjoy it."

An obscure, friendly and bright-faced trainer, Robinson has won nine races already this year at Laurel Park. That's after winning six races all last year, 13 the year before and nine the year before that.

Her nine wins this year have come from a mere 14 starts. Her horses in 2003 have not finished worse than fourth. They've registered two seconds, one third and two fourths.

After saddling two winners Jan. 10, she said: "I am speechless. I feel like Cinderella."

After saddling two more Jan. 29, she said: "I am still in shock."

Robinson, 51, manages 17 horses at Pimlico Race Course. She has trained on her own for six years - after working for trainers Mikey Smithwick, Tom Voss, Joe Clancy and Roger Attfield. She started for Smithwick when she was 20. She served as Attfield's assistant for 15 years.

She trained a small stable of mostly "other people's problems," she says. But this year, with the second string from the Canadian breeder Gustav Schickedanz, she has won on a pace that ranks her among the top 50 trainers in the country.

What's happened?

"That's a good question," Robinson says. "I just think everything came together at the same time."

She formed a partnership with Ann Merryman about a year ago, she says, in which the two trainers shuttle horses back and forth between Merryman's farm in Sparks and Robinson's barn at Pimlico. That has helped her horses, Robinson says. And Schickedanz's homebreds, mostly from the stallion Langfuhr, have taken to Laurel's deeper surface after racing on Woodbine's fast track, she says.

"I've got a great crew," Robinson says. "As hard as this winter's been, I'm just so happy for them."

Has she ever encountered a streak of good fortune like this?

"Never," she says. "And I probably never will again."

Bobblehead fever

As long as Maryland racing remains slots-free, you can count on one hand the weekends worth calling friends about. One is coming up - although more than likely, friends are calling you.

That's because the Maryland Jockey Club will give away Xtra Heat bobbleheads on Presidents Day, Feb. 17. Requests from out of state are already rolling in to Marylanders asking for a coveted bobblehead. The giveaway will happen two days after Xtra Heat is scheduled to run in the Barbara Fritchie Handicap.

The Barbara Fritchie, a $200,000 Grade II sprint for females, will take place Saturday at Laurel Park. The seven-furlong race will feature two of the fastest horses in the country, assuming they both stay healthy: Xtra Heat and Carson Hollow.

They both raced against males in the Breeders' Cup Sprint last fall at Arlington Park. Xtra Heat, based at Laurel Park, finished sixth, and Carson Hollow, currently in Florida, faded to 13th.

Richard E. Dutrow Jr., trainer of Carson Hollow, says the 4-year-old filly, owned in part by Frank Stronach, was sick that day. This will be her first race back.

Scared of Xtra Heat, a winner of 25 of 34 races? Not Dutrow, the brother of Tony, the Maryland trainer. Richard Dutrow says if his filly runs her race, then the other horses, including Xtra Heat, are running for second.

"We'll find out Saturday, won't we?" says John Salzman, trainer and former part-owner of Xtra Heat? "I ain't going to hide."

The $100,000 John Campbell Handicap will occur next Sunday, followed by the Xtra Heat bobblehead giveaway and the General George Handicap, the Grade II $200,000 counterpart to the Barbara Fritchie.

The bobblehead giveaway will work this way, according to Keith Leacock, director of promotions and sales:

Gates at Laurel will open at 11 a.m. Patrons paying $3 admission and owners and trainers showing their Maryland Racing Commission badge will receive one coupon for a bobblehead. However, the bobbleheads won't be given away until after the fifth race.

Four thousand coupons will be given away - no more, Leacock says. After that, beginning the following Thursday, the bobbleheads will be available for sale in the gift shop. Leacock declined to say how many would be for sale, but he said they'll likely cost less than $25 by mail order and less than $20 in person.

Amputation investigation

A bizarre, even macabre, incident at Gulfstream Park in South Florida has focused attention on Michael Gill, the leading owner of winning thoroughbreds in Maryland as well as the country.

Gill's veterinarian amputated the broken leg of Casual Conflict after the 9-year-old gelding owned by Gill broke down and was euthanized Monday at Gulfstream Park. The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering has launched an investigation into the highly unusual and apparently unauthorized act.

Gill, 47, who owns a mortgage company in New Hampshire, races about 75 horses in Maryland and about 70 in Florida. He and his Florida trainer Mark Shuman have mounted large leads in wins at the prestigious Gulfstream meet with aggressive claims and placement of horses in races.

Gill told a reporter for the Daily Racing Form that his vet amputated the leg so he could research the injury. The Form raised the possibility that the leg could have been amputated to hide evidence of "an illegal or unethical act."

Gill was banned from racing in 1995 for three years in New Hampshire after investigators found an illegal drug in one of his horses and drugs and syringes in his barn. Shuman was fined $1,000 and suspended for 15 days last year in Maryland after two horses he trained for Gill were found to have raced on an illegal drug.

Delp looking for help

Bud Delp, Hall of Fame trainer, is running ads in the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse looking for owners. The ads say Delp is "presently forming a public stable."

He says he's trying to fill the void from the death last winter of his longtime horse owner Nancy Bayard and the recent cutbacks of Maryland's prominent owner and breeder, Robert E. Meyerhoff.

Delp says Meyerhoff has reduced his racing and breeding stock. Delp still trains 10 horses for Meyerhoff, he says. He also still trains for Harry and Tom Meyerhoff, as he has for 35 years. ... Pimlico will open April 2 and feature 27 stakes worth $4,235,000. The Pimlico Special has been reinstated and teamed with the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for the day before the Preakness. The 128th Preakness will take place May 17. ... The Maryland Million has been scheduled for Oct. 11 at Laurel. ... Trainer Charles Hadry was released from Johns Hopkins Hospital on Friday and returned to his farm in Westminster. Hadry, 72, had been undergoing treatment for cancer.

"I'm feeling pretty good," he said, answering the phone himself. "I feel better than I did when I was in the hospital. I'm home."

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