When the cold weather showed up Thursday morning at Laurel Park, the horses walking the shed row of the palatial private barn on the backstretch acted like they wanted to knock down the walls and go out to play.
While another horse reared up in front of him, Gators N Bears stood quietly while a groom rubbed his legs. Trainer Leo Nechamkin looked in on his best runner and then down the line at the nine other nice ones in his charge. Every expensive horse Nechamkin buys these days for his CKNPS Racing partnership is because of Gators N Bears.
"We all just put up seed money, and in the last couple years no one has had to put up a penny," said Nechamkin, who lives in Glenwood, Md.
Gators N Bears, who makes his final start today in the Grade I $300,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, has earned $804,393 in 31 starts for Nechamkin. The trainer bought him for $8,500 out of the estate sale of the late Robert Camac.
The De Francis is the feature race in Laurel's "Fall Festival of Racing," which includes seven other stakes races and total purses of $981,000. Post time is 12:15 p.m.
At a time when few good horses stay in training long enough to develop a bond with racing fans, Gators N Bears is a star at Laurel Park.
"Everyone at the track knows him," said exercise rider Lucy MaKinnon. "When he goes out to work, people say, 'Gator! Gator!' "
This will be the third try for Gators N Bears in the De Francis; he finished third in 2003 and fourth last year when he closed fast on the far outside, beaten by just 2 1/2 lengths. The 5-year-old has gone winless in six starts -- all stakes -- this year, but Nechamkin can recite a reason for each defeat.
"We took him to New York, and he ran with Don Six. He ran a good race, but we couldn't catch him," Nechamkin said. "We ran him back in the General George and [jockey] Ramon [Dominguez] had him too far back. We took him to the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup and there were two speed horses that had just scratched. Gators is a come-from-behind sprinter and we wound up on the front, and it set up for Clock Stopper.
"In the Maryland Breeders' Cup on Preakness Day, we were in the paddock for 35 minutes and guys were parachuting onto the racetrack. Gators just lost his cool. At Churchill Downs, they broke the track record and [jockey] C.C. Lopez had him wide around the turn."
In his most recent start, in September at Monmouth Park, Gators N Bears stumbled badly when the gate opened and struggled to catch up before tiring. He hasn't raced since, but has worked ferociously in preparation for the De Francis.
"If he runs back to the race he ran [at Churchill in June], the horse that beats him will know he's beaten a runner," Nechamkin said. "When he came out of his gallop the other day, he was like, 'You got any peppermints?' "
On Sunday, Gators N Bears will board a van bound for the Maryland Stallion Station in Glyndon, where Nechamkin expects him to become one of the most popular sires in Maryland -- a multiple stakes winning grandson of the famed stud Storm Cat.
The deal with Maryland Stallion Station allows Nechamkin to retain 20 percent ownership in Gators N Bears.
The trainer is quick to say, "Everything has a price," but MaKinnon was able to talk him out of accepting a big offer for the horse when he began winning stakes races as a 3-year-old.
"I said, 'You can't stop now; you've come this far,' " MaKinnon remembered. "I said, 'What are you going to do with the money?' He said, 'Go buy more horses.' I said, 'What are the chances of getting another like him?' "
Racing Note: New York-based trainer Richard Schosberg scratched Attila's Storm from the De Francis on Friday morning, even though the colt drew into the field off the also-eligible list when trainer Tim Tullock withdrew the filly Sensibly Chic.
Attila's Storm, who battled on the lead for most of the Breeders' Cup Sprint before finishing fourth, might have gone off as the favorite in the De Francis, but Schosberg didn't like the horse having to start from the outside No. 14 post position.
"The fact is we felt like we didn't get a chance to get a decent post position," Schosberg said. "I'd have no problem if all 14 of those horses [entered Wednesday] would have run. If they had any intention of running that filly, why not wait until the last minute and scratch?"
Maryland rules require a trainer to scratch a horse entered in a stakes race by the following morning. The owner of Sensibly Chic, Lois Nervitt, put up $3,000 to enter the De Francis before deciding to run in the less-demanding $75,000 Stefanita Handicap.
"It's not like there's a list, like in the Kentucky Derby, and they knew they were keeping Attila's Storm out," said Laurel Chief Operating Officer Lou Raffetto.