Bill Spawrs favorite garb is shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, attire he is odds-on to wear during the Del Mar meet and at any other meet the weather allows.
On a recent brisk, rainy day at Santa Anita, the 61-year-old trainer could have passed for Peter Falk in the role of Colombo frumpy hat, rumpled gray raincoat, dark glasses and all. The only thing missing was the cigar.
Spawr, on a jogging binge in an effort to lose weight, took a nasty spill on one of his recent runs, breaking two ribs and lacerating his face and nose to the point that he presently could pass as a W.C. Fields ringer if he had a mind to.
Spawr may not be readily recognizable these days, but anyone looking for him could do worse than try the winners circle.
With four training titles in his 14-year career, Spawr is no stranger to winning races. But he is doing so at an unprecedented pace at the moment. On Jan. 24, he won with three of five starters. All were ridden by his jockey-in-waiting, rejuvenated 54-year-old Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay Jr., the runaway leader in the current riding race.
The three victories put Spawr within two of Bob Baffert, who has won five of the last six Santa Anita training titles, the last four consecutively.
"Baffert absolutely is the guy to beat," said Spawr, who is the last trainer to dethrone Baffert (in 1995-96).
Spawr has more than two months to overtake Baffert, but said, "Ill feel very fortunate if I can stay close to him."
Spawr should be able to at least do that. He has the horses.
"Weve got a lot of horses that are ready to run," Spawr said. "Its tough finding races for them, but (racing secretary) Mike Harlow has done a real good job working with me and all the trainers. Weve complimented him for doing such a good job."
Modesty aside, theres no question Spawr is on a roll. His stable doesnt have the princely stock that Baffert can put on display, but Spawrs hoi polloi horses can run the claiming gauntlet, which could be the difference in winning the training crown. Through the meets first 23 days, Spawr was winning at almost a 27 percent clip, 11 for 41.
But Spawr takes slight umbrage when it is suggested his is "merely" a claiming stable.
"We claim horses," Spawr said unashamedly. "We purchase horses through claiming ranks. Claiming horses is not a disease."
Not by a long shot. Thats the way the game is played. Spawrs greatest claim was Exchange, a filly he took for $50,000 in her second career start on May 2, 1991, and won more than $1 million with her after the claim. Among her many victories were the 1993 Santa Ana and Santa Barbara Handicaps, both Grade I races.
The best horse in Spawrs barn today is a six-year-old Argentine-bred mare named Critikola.
"Shes a filly that I didnt claim," Spawr pointed out. "We bought her privately for Kip Knelman (a long-time Spawr client from Edina, Minn., who races as Farfellow Farms, Ltd.). She ran once in the United States, finishing fourth in the Bayakoa at Hollywood Park (last Dec. 23). If you watched the films of that race, it would leave tears in your eyes on how much the best she was."
Critikola was beaten about a length and a half by Feverish after breaking "awkwardly and slowly," according to the Racing Form.
"I think shes as good as any horse Ive ever had," Spawr said, "and that includes Exchange." Critikola will get her chance to make amends Feb. 18, when she runs in the Grade I Santa Maria Handicap at 11/16 miles.
Spawr has about 40 race-ready horses either at Santa Anita or on the farm at Rancho Paseana in Del Mar. He credits his loyal stablehands and the indefatigable Pincay for much of his success.
"You cant do it without good people around you, and Im fortunate to have them," Spawr said. "Pincay is a big part of it, too, as big as anybody. Hes riding like a young kid these days. Make that a talented young kid."
DEVILETTA Compromised when rushed into speed duel, but continued gamely when moved to the outside in stretch. Deserves another chance vs. $62,500 sprinters.
GARDEN IN THE RAIN Julio Canani-trained French invader took to turf with alacrity. Look for more victories in store.
MON ANGE Merv Griffin-owned filly won debut as a good thing and should go through her conditions in winning fashion.
ROYALLY CHOSEN Beaten favorite in fine form for Bruce Headley. Daughter of In Excess can handle non-winners of two sprinting.
Spawr says Santa Anitas main track is playing very fair and "is probably the best surface weve been on in years." Sweet Serendipity, the half-sister to 1999 Breeders Cup Juvenile winner Anees conditioned by Spawr, has been sent to Rancho Paseana in Del Mar and is scheduled to make her debut at the seaside track this summer . . . If the weights arent acceptable to trainer Bruce Headley, Sprint champion Kona Gold may not race again until this years Breeders Cup Sprint, on Oct. 27 at Belmont Park. Headley entered Kona Gold in last Sundays Palos Verdes Handicap, but didnt run because he felt the 126-pound weight assignment was too much for the seven-year olds first start back since winning the BC Sprint last Nov. 4. "If the weights arent right in the (March 4) San Carlos Handicap, I can wait until the Breeders Cup and run him at equal weights, when they all carry 126," Headley said . . . D. Wayne Lukas congratulated trainer David Hofmans after his Millennium Wind won the Santa Catalina Stakes. "Keep it going," Lukas told Hofmans. "I have (breeding) shares in Charismatic." Millennium Wind, a $1.2 million son of Cryptoclearance, is a half-brother to 1999 Kentucky Derby winner Charismatic, who was trained by Lukas . . . Trainer Ron Ellis has six wins at the meet, all on the turf . . . Victor Espinoza and Tyler Baze will be guests of The Orleans race book and host Ralph Sirocco Monday, Feb. 26. The young riding stars will make themselves available to fans for questions, autographs and photographs.