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Weekend Racing at Santa Anita : Rick Mettee Turns His Apprenticeship at Baltimore Track Into a Career

Times Staff Writer

Rick Mettee’s parents have never been to the front side of a race track.

That’s unusual, because in Baltimore, they live practically next door to the Timonium track and their 30-year-old son has been working at tracks since he left high school.

“They may have seen a race, while standing in a barn area, but as well as I can remember, they’ve never watched a race from the stands,” Mettee said. “They have watched some races on television.”

When a much younger Mettee announced that he was going over to Timonium to look for a job, his parents were taken aback.

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“They weren’t crazy about the idea,” Mettee said.

Mettee had an older brother and sister, each of whom went to college, the brother studying political science and graduating with honors. Now Mettee was taking a menial job as a hot walker at a race track--cooling off horses after their morning workouts--and doing things that his parents couldn’t comprehend.

But Mettee’s interest in racing went back a long way. His grandmother, who was not above an occasional $2 bet, began taking him to Timonium when he was 5.

And today, Mettee makes that quantum leap in racing, going from an assistant trainer to saddling a horse in an important race under his own name.

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For the last year, it has seemed as though Mettee has been Annoconnor’s trainer all along, what with Mettee’s former boss, John Gosden, being abroad so much during a transition period of his own. But when the 5-year-old mare runs today in the $125,000 San Gorgonio Handicap at Santa Anita, she will officially be Mettee’s responsibility for the first time.

Mettee started working for Gosden at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in 1981, when Gosden himself was an unestablished trainer with a small draft of 15 largely undistinguished horses. Gosden, though, had been successful in England and quickly stamped himself as one of the best trainers in this country, winning Eclipse Awards with Bates Motel and Royal Heroine. When he decided late last year, to return to his native England to train, Mettee was given many of the horses in the barn.

Annoconnor is the only stakes winner among the 17 Mettee has in his care, but she is the kind of mare who can make the blond trainer more visible to prospective clients, getting him to the winner’s circle after the eighth race instead of the second. Mettee also has some young horses for Robert Sangster, the former English soccer-pools kingpin who spent millions of dollars at Kentucky yearling sales in the 1980s. It was Sangster who gave Gosden some of his horses during that trainer’s formative years here.

Patience--a virtue Gosden had in running horses--has kept Mettee from trying his hand as a head trainer sooner.

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“A few years ago, I had the chance to leave John,” Mettee said. “But I decided to wait until the timing was better. I had seen other assistant trainers go out on their own a bit too early and then wind up struggling.”

While Mettee’s parents were still trying to figure out what a hot walker was, Mettee was spending a year at a time with various trainers on the Maryland circuit. Finally he landed with Dick Dutrow, a leading claiming trainer in Baltimore then, and spent 2 1/2 years in that barn. The Dutrow connection led to Mettee’s coming to California to work for Gosden.

“I had heard so much about California racing, I wanted to come out and experience what it was like,” Mettee said. “I still wasn’t sure that this was going to be my career, though.”

The chances were good, though.

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“When I was in Baltimore, I liked racing even when I didn’t know what I was doing,” Mettee said.

Mettee progressed through the ranks under Gosden--groom, stable foreman and then assistant trainer for almost 3 years. He traveled East with Bates Motel, one of Gosden’s first important horses and the national champion handicap horse in 1983.

“When my parents became familiar with Bates Motel, that’s when they were convinced that my life was taking on some direction,” Mettee said. “I seemed to be doing well, and I was going about things the right way.”

Of all Gosden’s stakes winners, Zoffany was Mettee’s favorite. Zoffany raced until he was a 6-year-old, winning several stakes, including the Hollywood Turf Cup and the Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park, and he was retired with earnings of $1.2 million.

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“He was such a kind horse, and he was the horse I was around the longest,” Mettee said. “He got better as he got older. I was around him all the way through, from the time he started running until he was retired and syndicated (for breeding).”

Annoconnor could be one of those durable performers, too. She ran 11 times last year, winning 3 stakes and earning almost $500,000. In the voting for Eclipse Award female turf horse, she finished second to Miesque.

In her last 2 starts, however, Annoconnor could do no better than fourth in the Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita and second, 1 1/4 length behind Nastique, in the Matriarch at Hollywood Park.

Vicariously, Mettee knows full well about horses’ slumps. He saw John Gosden leave for Newmarket recently, with a lot less hair than when he came.

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Horse Racing Notes

Nine horses are entered at Calder today in the $150,000 Tropical Park Derby, which is the year’s first important stake for 3-year-olds. Reaffirming, from Wayne Lukas’ barn and ridden by Marco Castaneda, will be favored. The high weight, at 122 pounds, is Silver Sunsets, who bled in his last race and will be treated with Lasix this time. Angel Cordero has that mount.

At Santa Anita Sunday, 13 horses are entered to run in the $125,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes for state-foaled 3-year-olds. Gum, who won 2 straight before suffering sore shins last year, will be running, along with Flying Continental and Past Ages. . . . The field for the $300,000 El Camino Real Derby a week from Sunday is expected to include Rob an Plunder, Hawkster, Double Quick and Stephen’s Sooner. Hawkster and Stephen’s Sooner ran 3-4 in the Hollywood Futurity.

Fast Play, one of the early favorites for this year’s Kentucky Derby, will now probably miss the Triple Crown races, according to his trainer, Shug McGaughey. Fast Play, a son of Seattle Slew, had bone chips removed from his left knee in November, after a 2-year-old season that included 2 stakes wins and 4 victories in 6 starts.

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