But after reflecting on her third-place finish for a $20,000 claiming price against 11 rivals at Keeneland on Oct. 12, the 77-year-old Kaelin decided it was too risky to put Slander up for sale.
Under a patient, crafty ride by Fernando De La Cruz, Slander rallied from eighth place at the top of the stretch Friday to defeat 4-year-old Fire Assay by a half-length in 1:42.62. The 8-5 favorite, Pelipa, finished third in the 10-horse field.
It was the third victory in 12 lifetime starts for Slander, who was claimed by Kaelin for $25,000 March 31 out of a third-place finish at Tampa Bay Downs. The daughter of Johar-Juicie Tidbit, bred in Pennsylvania by Mr. and Mrs. M. Roy Jackson, paid $50 as the second-longest shot in the race.
Kaelin said he rarely pays attention to the odds, but his owner – Elyria, Ohio automobile dealer Jack Matia – does. A thrilled Matia telephoned Kaelin immediately after the race to celebrate their good fortune.
“This filly has been training super,” said Kaelin, referring to her bullet four-furlong workout of 48 1/5 for four furlongs Dec. 1 and a five-furlong breeze six days later of 1:01 1/5. “I just had a feeling she was going to run good.
“I told (De La Cruz) to lay just off the pace, but the way the race set up he was a little farther back than I expected. He went down the backside with an armful of horse and nowhere to go, but around the turn she started moving.
“I think she could keep improving because she was pulling away from them at the finish,” Kaelin said. “If the race had come off the turf, I would have run her because she’s been working like crazy.”
The result, and his owner’s good fortune at the windows, caused Kaelin to think back to a 2000 allowance race at Churchill Downs with his then-3-year-old gelding Miner’s Prize, who developed into a stakes winner.
“I kept coming home every day before the race at Churchill telling (his wife Betty) how good he was training and how he’d run good,” he said. “So I ran him and he paid $134, and she bet everything she could on him.”
The Kaelins, who live in Clearwater, Fla., during the winter, have been married 56 years. Forrest Kaelin is a former jockey who rode 89 winners in 48 days at Wheeling Downs in West Virginia in 1953, when he was 18, and was also a leading rider at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn Park.
He rode for about 10 years, winning close to 800 races, but injuries and the responsibility of providing for his new bride led him to turn to training. Kaelin has saddled more than 1,500 winners, including such notable stakes winners as Da Devil (who paid $132.80 in winning the 1999 Kentucky Cup Classic) and Vodika Collins.
Kaelin saddled his lone Kentucky Derby starter, Crimson Classic, in 1997, finishing 11th. He currently trains the 5-year-old multiple-stakes winning gelding Good Lord, who was second in last year’s Pelican Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
Kaelin rode at Tampa Bay Downs (then known as Sunshine Park) in 1956. Looking back more than a half-century ago, he remarked “There wasn’t anything out here, just this racetrack and a little bar and filling station at the end of Racetrack Road and Hillsborough Avenue.”
Tampa Bay Downs has come a long way, and so has Kaelin. Neither one shows any signs of slowing. “I told him a while back, ‘You know, you should retire,’ ” Betty Kaelin said. “He told me ‘I can only play so much golf or do so much fishing. I’ll train forever.’ But I did get him to take Mondays off and let (his staff) walk the horses.”
Kaelin, who has 14 horses at Tampa Bay Downs, is a bit more direct. “I’m going to retire when they throw dirt in my face,” he said. “It’s something to get up for every day, and I’ve got some maidens that haven’t run yet that might come around.”
De La Cruz also won the 10th race Friday on 3-year-old gelding Magnificent Wreck for owner Neal Allread and trainer Barbara McBride.
Saturday’s 10-race program at Tampa Bay Downs begins at 12:38 p.m. The first Sunday of live racing is Dec. 23. Tampa Bay Downs is open every day except Dec. 25 for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at The Downs Golf Practice Facility.