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Some winning logic from Nonsequitur Stable

WashPost: Profitable existence may produce surprise winner at Preakness

Of all the owners involved in the Preakness, the Nonsequitur Stable has the most modest operation. Moreover, its horse, Water Cannon, has achievements and bloodlines inferior to the rest of the entrants.

Yet the other participants in Saturday's race, including internationally known owners such as Michael Tabor and Madeleine Paulson, might look with envy and amazement on the Washington lawyers who comprise the Nonsequitur Stable. In a game where the vast majority of owners — including the most astute professions — lose money steadily, the Nonsequitur Stable has shown a net profit during its decade of existence, finishing in the black in eight of 10 years.

The partners have made their own decisions about buying and managing horses, and they have succeeded in large part because of their pragmatism. "They keep their expectations realistic," said their trainer, Linda Albert. "They don't shoot for the stars."

In several respects, the Nonsequitur Stable's presence in the Preakness is a departure from its normal operations. The stable usually competes in low-profile Maryland races and has never been involved in an event of this magnitude before. And this time the owners are indeed shooting for the stars. Although their gelding has won five straight races, he will almost certainly be the longest shot in the Preakness field.

The Preakness has produced its share of surprises by Maryland-based runners, such as the second-place finish by 45-to-1 Magic Weisner in 2002 and the win by Deputed Testamony in 1983. These precedents are a slender basis for hopes of an upset by Water Cannon, but even lawyers are allowed to dream once in a while.

When Ellen Fredel, Pat Dooher, David Dorsen and the late Al Ablondi put up $10,000 apiece to launch their venture in 1994, they weren't dreaming of the Preakness or of profits. Recognizing the economic realities of the sport, they structured their partnership with tax writeoffs in mind. If they were fated to lose money, they agreed, they wanted the fun and challenge of directing the stable — instead of delegating all of the responsibilities to a trainer. While many horsemen resent meddlesome owners, Albert was delighted with the plan, which would let her concentrate on caring for the animals.

Fredel proposed that they undertake their enterprise by spending $14,500 to claim a filly named Glass Tree. It was an auspicious beginning: she earned more than $70,000 in the next year, and the Nonsequitur Stable was off and running. Their second purchase was even more successful. They spent another $14,500 for the gelding Perfect to a Tee, who went on to win more than $400,000 in an extraordinarily productive career.

Most of the stable's activities involved claiming horses, but when Glass Tree retired, the partners decided to breed her and move into a new phase of the game. They were pressing their luck — breeding horses and buying yearlings is, if anything, even riskier than racing claimers. But the Nonsequitur luck held. Glass Tree's son, Off the Glass, has earned more than $100,000. The partnership also bought a share in the stallion Our Emblem, and sold at a big profit after his son War Emblem captured the Kentucky Derby.

"We've tried to do this carefully and methodically, as lawyers would," Dorsen said. "Pat and Ellen are very perceptive and very studious. After they've picked horses they like, Linda has a very good eye for spotting defects.

"We try not to get too attached to horses; we're willing to cut our losses" — by dropping unproductive runners into cheap claiming races. Dorsen added, "We also have the financial cushion that lets us make the right decisions."

When Perfect to a Tee developed tendon problems, the owners gave him more than a year to recuperate; their patience was rewarded when the gelding recovered from his ailments and won the $200,000 Maryland Million Classic. That was the biggest race in which a Nonsequitur horse had ever run — until Water Cannon brought the stable to the Preakness.

When the partners decided to look for a 2-year-old at a Maryland sale last year, Dooher pored over the sales catalogue and loved the pedigree of a gelding by Waquoit, a stallion who was an unglamorous but formidable distance runner. With their trainer's approval, the stable bought Water Cannon for $37,000.

The gelding lost the first six races of his career before Albert equipped him with blinkers for a maiden race at Laurel in December. Water Cannon has been perfect since then. He won a maiden race, an allowance and a pair of minor stakes at Laurel before tackling tougher competition in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico. When he won it in an upset, local newspapers, the Daily Racing Form and the Pimlico publicity department were describing Water Cannon as a prospect for the Preakness.

Water Cannon's Beyer Speed Figures in his stakes wins are 88, 78 and 79, compared to the 107, 107 and 108 earned by Preakness favorite Smarty Jones in his last three starts. Ordinarily, the Nonsequitur partners would look at this hard evidence and pick a more appropriate spot for their horse. But with all the media attention on Water Cannon after the Tesio Stakes, Dorsen said: "Serious discussion was impossible. We were swept up by a tidal wave."

Their trainer didn't try to dampen the owners' enthusiasm. "When you've got a horse doing this good, and the race is coming to your home track, you've got to take a shot," Albert said. "You don't get a chance like this very often."

Certainly, operations on the scale of the Nonsequitur Stable don't get such chances. The partners will relish their Preakness fling, and then they'll get back to the business of operating a stable with lawyerly prudence.