Nancy Alberts doesn't hide her enthusiasm when people ask about Magic Weisner. And they still ask, even though Magic hasn't won a race since July 2002.
They ask around the track. They call. They ask in letters and e-mails. Alberts received three or four Christmas cards addressed to herself and Magic.
"Magic is doing wonderful," she said Thursday to yet another inquiry about her 5-year-old gelding, which, despite his troubles, remains in training at Laurel Park.
And then, Alberts said something she hadn't said before: "I think I just might have a racehorse again by spring."
She quickly added: "I don't know if he's going to be as good as he was."
The story of Magic Weisner remains one of racing's best. Alberts bred him from a mare she'd purchased for $1. He became one of the top 3-year-olds in 2002, winning the Ohio Derby, finishing second in the Preakness and Haskell and fourth in the Belmont.
Alberts had never had a horse anywhere near as good. She owned him, trained him and galloped him in the mornings. Then he contracted West Nile virus and nearly died. He returned to training at the beginning of last year, but in his one try back, an allowance-optional claiming race in July at Laurel, he finished last.
Alberts didn't give up. She kept galloping and working him at Laurel. Late last year, she fulfilled a dream and bought a small farm in Sykesville with money she'd won with Magic. She said if he couldn't make it back as a racehorse, then "I would want him right there with me. He's just the most wonderful animal to be around."
She believes now he will make it back. His workouts have improved, and he has regained strength in his hind end, she said. That had been a problem after his sickness.
"I'm just absolutely tickled to death," Alberts said.
She said it's too early to think about specific races but that she'll start looking once the weather gets warmer, as long as Magic continues doing well.
"Don't ask him how he feels," she said. "He'll squeal, just like his brother, Deliver."
Magic Weisner and Deliver Hope reside in stalls side-by-side in Alberts' barn at Laurel.
"They watch everything that goes on, and they get to squealing," she said. "It sounds like two sissy girls. It's the cutest thing you've ever seen."
An image problem?
Michael Gill has hired a public-relations firm. The New Hampshire resident, who races extensively in Maryland, has hired Tim O'Leary of O'Leary & Cosentino Communications in White Plains, N.Y., to help him improve his image.
The firm issued a statement from Gill on Thursday, three days after the Eclipse Awards banquet, at which Gill lost Owner of the Year to Juddmonte Farms despite becoming in 2003 the ninth owner in 100 years to lead the nation in both wins (425) and earnings ($9.2 million).
"I can't help but think that the vote was against me, rather than a vote against the accomplishments," Gill's statement said. "And I don't understand that. We all cheered Seabiscuit last year, a movie about hope and the underdog rising from obscurity to challenge racing's establishment and emerge victorious."
Gill then mentioned Charles Howard, owner of Seabiscuit, describing him as "an American businessman who started out with nothing to become the leading money-winning owner in an era dominated by the Whitneys and Vanderbilts. How am I any different than Howard?"
One obvious difference is that Howard owned Seabiscuit. If Gill had a Seabiscuit in his barn, then he'd probably be Owner of the Year.
For Howard, Seabiscuit won 24 stakes and was twice champion older horse and once Horse of the Year. He won the Santa Anita Handicap, a race worth $100,000 in 1940, and defeated War Admiral in a 1938 match race at Pimlico that some regard as the greatest race ever.
According to Equibase Co., the thoroughbred industry's database of racing records, Gill's biggest wins in 2003 were a pair of Grade III stakes: the Deputy Minister Handicap at Gulfstream Park with Native Heir, and the Maryland Breeders' Cup at Pimlico with Pioneer Boy. Gill's entrant in the Breeders' Cup, Forest Music, finished last in the Juvenile Fillies, barely making it across the finish line.
Gill's statement concluded: "There are many in this sport who feel threatened by an outsider and an American success story coming and breaking their records, but I'm proud of the records that our operation [has] set so far, and I'm more determined than ever to continue to set records in this sport."
Down the stretch
Eighty-nine horses have been nominated to the four stakes Feb. 14-16 that make up Laurel's Winter SprintFest.
The lineup: $200,000 Barbara Fritchie Handicap (Grade II) and $150,000 John B. Campbell Handicap on Feb. 14; $75,000 Jameela Stakes on Feb. 15; and $200,000 General George Handicap (Grade II) on Feb. 16.
The foursome representing Colonial Downs (Harry Damgaard, Dave Durkin, Berkley Kern and John Vitale) captured the $25,000 first-place prize in the team competition of the national handicapping championship last weekend in Las Vegas.
With prizes of $240,000, the contest was sponsored by the Daily Racing Form and National Thoroughbred Racing Association.
Jack Liebau, president of Magna Entertainment Corp.'s three tracks in California, announced his resignation last week. He's the fourth chief executive to leave Santa Anita Park since Magna bought it in 1998.
Slot machines became a factor at New York tracks last Wednesday, when doors opened to the 1,323-machine casino at Saratoga Raceway, a harness track in Saratoga Springs.
More than 10,000 patrons bet $2.5 million on the first day.
Slots have been approved for eight New York tracks - Aqueduct, Finger Lakes and six harness tracks.
Fans selected Funny Cide's win in the Kentucky Derby as the NTRA moment of the year for 2003. High Chaparral and Johar's dead heat in the Breeders' Cup Turf ranked second in the online poll.
For the ninth straight year, Russell Baze, who rides in northern California, won the National Turf Writers Association's Isaac Murphy Award for highest win percentage among jockeys with at least 500 mounts. Baze won 30.17 percent of his faces (1,359 mounts, 410 wins). Maryland's Ramon Dominguez was second at 27.84 percent.
Figures from Equibase Co. and the NTRA show horserace betting in the U.S. increased 0.9 percent to $15.2 million last year. But purses declined 1.86 percent to just over $1 billion, , and racing days dropped 1.66 percent to 6,438.
As the breeding season opens this month, 10 stallions in North America, all in Kentucky, command stud fees of at least $100,000: Broad Brush, Deputy Minister, Empire Maker and Mineshaft $100,000; Gone West and Unbridled's Song $125,000; Seeking the Gold $150,000; Kingmambo $225,000; A.P. Indy $300,000; and Storm Cat $500,000.
The highest in Maryland is Two Punch at $25,000.