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Wilt the Tilt emerges as local and a Smith family favorite

Cyndi Smith had never bid on a horse. She left that end of the business to her husband, Mike. And on that afternoon two years ago at the Ocala Breeders' Sale, he had bought a couple of yearlings.

Two was going to be their limit. But they walked back to the ring where the year-old horses were being shown. No harm in looking.

"I saw this horse that had come into the ring _ we'd never even looked at him before _ and I started raising my hand before we even sat down," Cyndi Smith said. "I believe you can look at an animal and see whether he has some brains, some class, just like you can see it in people. I saw it in him."

He ended up costing the couple from Tampa $8,000. The other yearlings they bought that day, "they did okay," she said.

Wilt the Tilt probably will go to the post Sunday as the local favorite in the $150,000 Tampa Bay Derby.

"He's done very well for us already," Cyndi Smith said. Wilt the Tilt won the prep for the Sam F. Davis Stakes and then, earlier this month, the Sam F. Davis Stakes itself, the prep for the Tampa Bay Derby. That added $17,000 to the $30,000 he'd won for the Smiths as a 2-year-old.

First place in Sunday's race is worth $90,000.

"If Tilt keeps moving on and up like he has," she said, "we might run him in the Illinois Derby, the Ohio Derby . . . "

The Kentucky Derby?

Cyndi Smith rolled her eyes. "Oh, boy!" she exclaimed, "wouldn't that be something?" And a moment later: "I can dream, can't I?"

The 17th running of the Tampa Bay Derby and 14th running of the accompanying $100,000 Florida Oaks for fillies, each run at 1/ miles, are preps for the Kentucky Derby (some fillies will prep for the day-earlier Kentucky Oaks). Then again, so is every major race for 3-year-olds this time of year.

A number of horses have run in these races and made the jump to America's premier thoroughbred race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Slew O' Gold, the 1983 Eclipse Award winner as the 3-year-old of the year, was fourth in the Kentucky Derby after finishing second here to Morganmorganmorgan..

The Tampa Bay Derby competes for horses with the $500,000 Florida Derby on March 15 at Gulfstream and the $200,000 Flamingo on April 5 at Hialeah. Right now South Florida has the consensus top horse in the country, Pulpit, the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby despite finishing second in the Florida Derby.

There are 45 horses nominated for the Tampa Bay Derby and 35 for the Florida Oaks, a significant increase over last year, according to Robert Clark, the track's director of racing.

Among the probable entries for the Tampa Bay Derby:

Zede, with two wins and two seconds in five starts, including a win at 1/ miles in his last start, at Gulfstream. He is trained by Bill Mott, who also trained Cigar.

Stormy Cloud, whose third lifetime win was in the Maryland Juvenile Championship, a $100,000 stakes race at Laurel.

Ship Liner, who won his last time out and has finished in the money in four of seven starts. He is trained by Don Rice of Tampa.

Until last year the Smiths concentrated on training and racing Arabian horses, first at Mount Pleasant Meadows, a small quarter horse track in central Michigan. Mike Smith helped it develop an Arabian program. He was recently hired as its vice president and general manager. The family will spend May-September in Michigan, October-April here and elsewhere.

The Smiths did their thoroughbred buying at the Ocala Breeders' Sale "because yearlings are cheaper than 2-year-olds in training," she said. "And I wanted something that hadn't been broken or trained. Sometimes you never know what you're getting" if the horse's training has begun.

"We broke Tilt and trained him and he did real well. He broke his maiden (won for the first time) at Delaware Park, but he didn't seem to like the track. He was always right there (with the leaders), but the races were never long enough for him _ five, six furlongs."

She knew right away, Cyndi Smith said, that Wilt the Tilt would be a distance horse, not a sprinter.

"Some horses have speed, some don't. Tilt doesn't like to be rushed. When we break him out of the gate he likes to settle in. The more you push him, the more he kind of hesitates. He likes to do his own thing, then chase them. He trains that way, runs that way, and we haven't tried to change him."

"We" includes not only her husband but their children, Brandy 22, and Jeremy, 19. She grooms them and he gallops them. Jeremy broke Wilt the Tilt and is working toward an assistant trainer's license.

"Cheap labor," Cyndi said, laughing. "And guaranteed labor. They're our kids; they'll show up."

Tampa Bay Derby,

Florida Oaks

DISTANCE: 1/ miles.

ENTRIES: To be drawn Friday. Maximum for each race is 14 3-year-olds.

RECORDS: Tampa Bay Derby, 1:43 / by Thundering Storm (1996), Storm Predictions (1989) and Phantom Jet (1987); Florida Oaks (fillies), 1:44 / by Norac (1986). Track record: 1:43 / by Sunny Prospector (1989).

ADMISSION: $1.50 grandstand; $3 clubhouse.


INFORMATION: 854-4238; main office, 855-4401.