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State Fair will bid farewell to Sidepocket Lou

Sidepocket Lou, a 10-year-old thoroughbred, runs on the track at Cal Expo in Sacramento with jockey Hugo Herrera at a morning workout earlier this month. The popular chestnut will soon race for the last time at the State Fair before his retirement. He’s scheduled to race Sunday, July 26, 2015.
Sidepocket Lou, a 10-year-old thoroughbred, runs on the track at Cal Expo in Sacramento with jockey Hugo Herrera at a morning workout earlier this month. The popular chestnut will soon race for the last time at the State Fair before his retirement. He’s scheduled to race Sunday, July 26, 2015. rpench@sacbee.com

When the gates spring open to start Sunday’s fourth race on closing day at the State Fair, a 51/2-furlong claiming event in which $3,200 will buy you the thoroughbred of your choice, Sidepocket Lou will do what he’s done for most of his career: Run as fast as he can as far as he can.

For “Lou,” a 10-year-old gelding with the wear of 63 races over eight years, that’s not as fast or as far as it used to be. Add consecutive seventh-place finishes and a four-month layoff to the equation, and the odds appear stacked against him.

“I think he’ll fire,” said Dale Raymond, his trainer. “I know he’ll give everything he’s got. Whether that’s enough, I don’t know.”

Face of Fair racing

There are lower rungs on the American thoroughbred racing ladder than a $3,200 claiming race at the State Fair, but not many.

Lou has been a regular at the Fair’s lowest level since first racing in Sacramento in 2010, finishing in the money in five of his six Cal Expo starts with two wins. In years past, it seemed as if Fair racing didn’t really begin until the big red horse with the catchy name appeared.

Lou had the ability to rally from behind early in his career but has evolved into a “speed” horse who likely will be on or near the early lead Sunday. He’s been first or second after the initial quarter mile in 18 of his past 30 races.

There’s another change brewing: Sunday will be Lou’s Sacramento swan song. The plan is for two or three more races at fair meets in Stockton and Fresno, then a pony’s life on Raymond’s 30-acre farm near Turlock.

A 10-year-old thoroughbred – 35 in human years, give or take – is old by racing standards but not unheard of. Lou is happy and healthy, his trainer said. He has no lameness issues and doesn’t need drugs to train. One hip is a tad higher than the other, but a visit from his chiropractor has him aligned. The dent in his rump, likely the result of a long-ago accident, just adds character.

“The horse likes to race,” Raymond said.

Arguably, Lou’s best race came when he finished third in a small stakes race at Hollywood Park in 2009 in his eighth career start. He’s raced at 11 tracks exclusively in California, winning 10 times, finishing in the top three 32 times with earnings of $154,232.

Look of a champ

Lou is a classic-looking chestnut with a flowing red tail and a white star on his forehead. At a sturdily built 17 hands, he resembles the great Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Sharing that sentiment won’t endear you to Kentucky blue bloods.

Lou keeps a quiet stance and an eye on things from his cinder-block stall in Barn O on Cal Expo’s backstretch, his home for three weeks during the Fair. He pays little attention to a skittish observer who reluctantly accepts an invitation into his tight living quarters. He seems to know to reserve his energy until it’s time to go to the track for exercise or a race.

Raymond is asked if the horse is always so calm.

“Til he gets his game face on,” the trainer said. “He’s a perfect pro. He knows what his job is.”

Lou has his quirks. He likes to run in the middle of the track during workouts and races. The harder a jockey fights to get him closer to the rail, the farther out he’ll go.

When it comes to grooming, he hates anyone messing with his whiskers. The result is a face full of red ones.

“I don’t want to fight with him,” Raymond said.

Lou was named by his breeder, Tony Sardo. The owner of an auto upholstery business in Southern California and a billiards player, Sardo said he names all the foals out of his mare On the Snap – another billiards term – Sidepocket something.

There are 10 Sidepockets, said Sardo, who owned Lou for one race before he was claimed away from him for $40,000 in his career debut in 2008 at Del Mar.

History of the union

Raymond spent four decades training Arabian show horses.

“I’m almost famous,” he said, grinning, of his place among Arabian show trainers.

When the show-ring business slowed, Raymond dabbled in training Arabian race horses.

“That’s what gave us the race bug,” he said.

When the number of those races dwindled, he turned to thoroughbreds, where he was a novice all over again. He saddled his first thoroughbred starter in 2005 but didn’t have his first winner until 2014, a span of more than 50 races.

“I was half blind to what was going on,” he said.

He has won 12 races in 163 career starters. The nation’s top trainers earn as much winning a big race as he has in his career.

Raymond has 10 horses stabled at Cal Expo, including an Arabian and a mule. He’s pleased with his progress but knows his place in the racing hierarchy.

“I’m like a little minnow,” he said.

The Raymonds acquired Lou in a private transaction in the fall of 2011. His wife, Edie, is listed as the owner.

Lou quickly became a family favorite.

“He was the first one we had some success with and learned with,” Edie said. “He’s just special, and he taught us a lot.”

The reality of the claiming game smacked Edie in the face last year when Lou was taken for $3,200 out of a Sacramento race. Edie said her heart ached.

“He was the first horse claimed away from us,” she said. “I was totally not prepared for it. People said he was too old, so I never gave it a thought he would be claimed.”

The cold nature of the transaction bothered her, she said. One minute, the horse is part of the family. The next, he’s headed to a stranger’s barn. Horses are creatures of habit, and she couldn’t stop thinking about how his world had been turned upside down.

Two races later, the Raymonds re-claimed Lou for the same price he was taken.

Into the sunset together

The Fair gives horsemen like Dale Raymond, who hopes to celebrate his 71st birthday Sunday with a win, and horses like Sidepocket Lou a place to race. Both have lost a step, but both still have a desire to compete.

“I don’t care what price they’re running for – a win is a win,” Raymond said.

The purse for today’s race is $9,000. The winning owner gets 55 percent.

“It’s not a get-rich deal,” Raymond said. “Have some fun, pay the bills and maybe make a few bucks at the same time.”

Dale and Edie celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary earlier this month. She manages a claims department for an insurance agency while he tends to the stable.

In 22 races under Raymond’s care, Lou has won once, and finished second twice and third four times. Lou is going to be well cared for regardless of how he fares in his final few races. The important thing is that he’s healthy to enjoy his retirement.

“We’ll ride him down to the river,” Raymond said. “Maybe he can be a pony horse, but his competitive instincts might kick in.”

Edie has her own ideas about Lou’s own post-race regimen.

“Let him lay around and be a big red horse.”

State Fair Horse Racing

  • Where: Cal Expo, 1600 Exposition Blvd., Sacramento
  • When: 1:15 p.m. first post Saturday and Sunday
  • Sidepocket Lou: Will run in Sunday’s fourth race, a 51/2-furlong dash for $3,200 claimers; post time, 2:56 p.m.
  • Admission: $12 (grandstand admission free with State Fair admission); parking $10.
  • Details: www.calfairs.com
  • Also: Sacramento Bee turf writer Debbie Arrington will be Cal Expo announcer Dave Rodman’s guest handicapper during a free seminar at 11:45 a.m. Sunday in the main grandstand.