The 4-year-old filly looked as though she wouldn't hurt a horsefly as she stood in her stall at Hollywood Park.
But when Eddie Gregson, Petite Ile's trainer, patted her head, the filly snapped at his hand. Ready for that, Gregson pulled the hand out of danger.
"She'll bite the hell out of you," Gregson said. "She takes her pet nips, and she's gotten me and just about everybody else in the barn."
This is no way for a well-bred Irish filly to act, but Gregson can't complain as long as Petite Ile doesn't mind those nine-hour van rides to San Francisco and keeps piling up victories.
Petite Ile, whose second-generation bloodlines include Nijinsky II on her sire's side and Round Table on the maternal side, has won two of three starts at Golden Gate Fields and will make her debut in the Southland Monday, closing day at Hollywood Park, in the $250,000 Sunset Handicap.
The Sunset is 1 1/2 miles on grass and usually is won by males, but Petite Ile should find neither the distance nor the race's tradition an obstacle. She won at 1 3/4 miles in her sendoff at the Curragh last September, beating males in the Irish St. Leger. And June 16, her last start, she beat males in the Golden Gate Handicap.
"She's some filly," Gregson said. "I've been quoted as saying that she's the best horse I've ever had. That's not completely accurate, because I think I used qualifiers when I said that, but she's certainly a very good one."
Petite Ile, who runs for Jean-Francois Malle, the older brother of filmmaker Louis Malle, wound up in Gregson's barn after she was offered at a Newmarket auction last December. When the bidding didn't go as high as expected, she was bought back for about $1 million.
When Petite Ile arrived in the United States, Gregson's horses were stabled at Santa Anita. "She made such a quick adjustment when I got her," Gregson said. "I've never had a foreign horse make the adjustment as quickly as she did. Santa Anita is not an easy track for a foreign horse to get used to. There's a lot of activity there, and all the horses have to go through just one gap (in the fence) to get to the track. But all of that didn't seem to bother her at all."
Gregson began training Petite Ile on dirt because she adapted so easily to a surface she's never tried in a race. Petite Ile still works on dirt and Gregson might race her on the main track some day, but for now the future holds nothing but grass.
By the time she was ready to run, the first race available was the Santa Barbara Handicap, but Gregson didn't want to throw her into major competition right away. So he vanned her to Golden Gate Fields for a second-place finish, and about three weeks later she won there in a prelude to the Golden Gate Handicap.
"I've never really had much luck running up North," Gregson said. "It's a long van ride for a horse, and then you turn right around the next day and bring them back. But she's handled it perfectly. She's a real trooper."
Petite Ile, purchased as a weanling for less than $50,000, was close in all of her European races, with three victories, one second and four thirds in eight starts. Most of her career has been managed by Emmanuel de Seroux, a bloodstock agent with offices in both California and France. De Seroux has worked with owners Allen Paulson and Bruce McNall among others and placed such foreign horses as Greinton, Trempolino, Frankly Perfect, Claire Marine and Golden Pheasant here.
"Petite Ile was a cut below the top fillies over there," De Seroux said. "And when she didn't bring enough at Newmarket, we decided to bring her to the States. We decided on Eddie to train her because of his training record and because I thought he would get along with Mr. Malle, who is a true sportsman."
Malle, a banker who lives in Paris, didn't see any of Petite Ile's races at Golden Gate but plans to be at Hollywood Park Monday.
"If she takes to the course Monday, I think she'll run well again," Gregson said. "The course here is firmer than it was at Golden Gate. She's not especially clever on the turns sometimes. In fact, that might have gotten her beat up there the first time, when she didn't handle the second turn that well."
Petite Ile is not eligible for the Breeders' Cup, which will be held at Belmont Park in October. Gregson would like to run her three more times this year--in the Del Mar Handicap, the Oak Tree Invitational at Santa Anita and the Japan Cup in Tokyo. Maybe Petite Ile will quit biting people now that there are no more nine-hour van rides in her future.
Horse Racing Notes
Possible opponents for Petite Ile in the Sunset are Live the Dream, Mashkour, Shotiche, Valdali, Royal Reach, Record Boom and Brisque. . . . Corey Black, who has ridden Petite Ile in all three of her American races, will have the mount again Monday. . . . Petite Ile earned $227,000 in Europe and already has added more than $322,000 in America.
Five 3-year-olds, headed by gelding Stalwart Charger, are entered in Sunday's $200,000 Swaps Stakes at 1 1/4 miles. In post-position order, they are Toby Jug, Bel Air Paster, Stalwart Charger, Silver Ending and Jovial. . . . Great Communicator, the 7-year-old gelding who won the Breeders' Cup Turf in 1988, returns from a nine-month rest to run in an allowance race today. He has earned $2.8 million, with 13 victories in 50 starts.
Besides Sunday Silence, the tentative field for the Arlington Challenge Cup Aug. 4 includes Opening Verse, Beau Genius, Clever Trevor, Mi Selecto, Western Playboy and Santangelo.