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Kentucky Downs scene of big day for Boerjan and Kalamos

FRANKLIN, Ky. -- Although substantial, the purse money wasn't quite as important to Edward Boerjan as the perk that went along with it, an all-expenses-paid retirement. Not that he was worried about his own retirement, but he would derive considerable comfort from knowing his horse could retire comfortably, with all the necessary care and more than necessary affection. That was important.

Boerjan has been living with cancer for years. He lives each day, he said, as though it could be his last, and one of his greatest pleasures has been riding Kalamos, the "smartest and most well-mannered horse" he said he's ever been around. But if the book on Boerjan's life were indeed to close some day soon, then what would happen to his companion from all those long trail rides? Should he have to leave suddenly, what would become of his good friend Tom, as Boerjan calls the horse? That is no longer a worry.

At Kentucky Downs on Wednesday, as a 50-1 bolt of extraordinary providence, Kalamos won the $150,000 Old Friends Stakes.

And so, in addition to the $89,175 purse, the 6-year-old received a reservation at Old Friends, the famous equine retirement center otherwise known as the "living history museum of horse racing."

The names are probably unfamiliar. For Kalamos, the Old Friends Stakes was only his fourth victory, and his first stakes win. The same could be said of the horse's owner and trainer: It was Boerjan's fourth win and first stakes victory, too. They became a team when their careers seemed to be approaching an end, but somehow their connection led to another beginning. For $3,000 last November, Boerjan bought Kalamos out of Keeneland's sale of racing-age horses, and since then, they've been virtually inseparable.

Boerjan is no ordinary horseman. In fact, he describes himself as an ordinary "working schmuck." A 61-year-old semi-retired pipefitter, he has worked, he said, in the construction of plants and factories all over the country -- "I wouldn't work in a nuclear plant, though. I don't [want to] glow in the dark." But his passion has been horses. He grew up around horses on a farm near Osage, Iowa, where a well-turned-out horse was like a flashy convertible with a sports exhaust system.

"We'd ride our horses into town," he recalled. "When I got older, I could ride my horse right into the bar."

Over the years, he has owned several horses, including, from time to time, a racehorse that he would patch up and run. He spent as much time at racetracks as the job allowed, worked at the tracks when possible and always watched attentively the most successful trainers. Listening to D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, Boerjan said, he tried to glean from them bits of advice he could apply to his own modest approach to the sport.

Nor is Kalamos an ordinary racehorse. Bred by famed Juddmonte Farms, he's a son of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker. As a 3-year-old, he won two races in Europe. When he came to this country and joined the stable of trainer Bill Mott, Kalamos won his American debut and showed promise. But injury compromised his potential.

When Kalamos stepped into the sales ring at Keeneland, Boerjan looked the horse in the eye and impulsively put up his hand. It happened that quickly. Nobody else bid or made so much as an acquisitive twitch. Three-thousand dollars later, Boerjan said, he had to ask a friend what color the horse was. Did he buy a riding horse or a racehorse? He wasn't sure, but either way he thought he got a deal.

Although he had -- and still has -- a screw in his right ankle, Kalamos quickly showed he retained a desire to race. Riding trails on a friend's farm in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Boerjan had so much trouble pulling Kalamos up he had to resort to using a big western saddle.

"We've gone over hill and dale together," Boerjan said. "I ride him every day, seven days a week. ... When I'm on top of him riding those trails, I'm in another world, and nobody can bother me, no cancer, nobody."

Winston Churchill once declared, "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." In this case, though, the benefits were reciprocal. Although an unorthodox way to train a racehorse, riding the trails worked for Boerjan. It worked for Kalamos, too.

Returning to competition in February, Kalamos improved steadily. And after each race, Boerjan brought him back to the farm and the trails. From the moment it became apparent Kalamos was still eager to race and was sound, Kentucky Downs became a goal. Riding the trails, Boerjan knew, would be the perfect way to prepare a horse to race over Kentucky Downs' unique 1 5/16-mile turf course, with its challenging uphill homestretch. For most American horses, the course represents an abrupt departure from everything they've encountered at a racetrack, and for some it requires a difficult adjustment. But for Kalamos, racing at Kentucky Downs should be just another afternoon of negotiating the trails.

Boerjan drove to Kentucky Downs from the farm in Fort Wayne on Tuesday, pulling a horse trailer behind him. And that night, in order to be close to his horse, Boerjan slept in the front seat of his truck, which was parked a few feet from Kalamos' stall in the stable area.

A mile and 70 yards, the Old Friends Stakes challenges horses to run briefly uphill to a crest, then downhill to a wide, sweeping turn and then uphill again to the wire. No race for the faint-hearted, it attracted some proven stakes performers, such as Sky Flight, the winner of the Tropical Park Derby at Gulfstream, and Fredericksburg, the runner-up in the Oceanport Stakes at Monmouth, and Mister Marti Gras, the millionaire winner of the Ack Ack Handicap at Churchill and the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington. And so 50-1 seemed reasonable odds on a horse that hadn't won in two years and had just arrived from a trail ride in Indiana.

From the start, Kalamos showed surprising speed that, as it turned out, foreshadowed a greater surprise to come. He stalked the early leaders, and then, when the field turned into the long, uphill stretch, instead of surrendering and retreating as most might have expected, he gradually but steadily drew clear, winning by two lengths.

"After carrying my big butt and that western saddle up and down those trails," Boerjan said, "he must have felt like he was running free with just that jockey [Abel Lezcano] and that little saddle on him."

Plans for Kalamos are uncertain. He'll continue to race, Boerjan said, as long as the horse wants to and remains sound. But he has some "girlfriends" on the farm, the owner/trainer said, and so perhaps Kalamos has a future as a stallion. And if needed, there's the all-expenses-paid retirement at Old Friends.

"That meant more to me than the money," Boerjan said, "just knowing he'll be taken care of. I can just picture him standing there with Silver Charm and Game On Dude."

When Boerjan purchased Kalamos, he didn't know how to pronounce his horse's name. Boerjan telephoned Juddmonte to ask for some clarity, but by then had already given the horse a nickname. As it turns out, though, the name is perfect. In Greek mythology, Kalamos is the greatest of friends. And in horse racing, he's the greatest of friends, too, even if he's called Tom.