By Leslie Carter
Great Friends are learning the ups and downs of the racing game.
Merv Morris puts it this way, "There's nothing like being in the winner's circle when you get there."
Morris, of Solana Beach, is a partner in Great Friends I, II and III; partnerships conceived by local sports radio personalities Scott Kaplan, who lives in Carmel Valley, and Billy Ray Smith, a former Charger.
They buy horses at Del Mar, mostly in the claiming ranks. They race for the fun of it and sell the horses at the end of the season and then start fresh again the next year.
Each year, about 20 partners put down $15,000 to experience the thrill of being thoroughbred owners at Del Mar.
Still, there's the lure of a claim such as the one trainer Doug O'Neil pulled off several years ago for $50,000 - the great Lava Man, who retired from racing with $5.2 million to his credit.
So the Friends adopted a "Lava Man" clause. If they find a superior horse, staying in the game might be an attractive option. The dream has come true for others.
The clause was invoked last year when Great Friends II acquired Mr. Chairman from the estate of Merv Griffin. He won his final start at Del Mar on Aug. 24, 2008, and then he stepped up to - and won - the $250,000 California Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
The path of Great Friends III has been different. Their one winner, Joe Carl, was claimed away. They lost Russian Liquor on Opening Day. He won his next time out.
On Aug. 23 before the fifth race, the 2009 partners were brimming with enthusiasm over Zohan, a classy 3-year-old gelding being saddled for his second race.
Also trained by O'Neill, he was promising in his workouts. John Lies, Del Mar TV host and consultant for Great Friends, picked Zohan, hoping they had their Mr. Chairman 2009.
The Friends were about to get another lesson in the sport.
Jockey Christian Santiago Reyes and Zohan led the field in a mile and a sixteenth race, until they got to the final turn and faded to seventh.
"It was really disappointing, especially when I think of our investors," Scott Kaplan said after the race.
That weekend two other Great Friends horses had finished seventh.
But the news was not bleak. Post-race, Lies talked with O'Neill, confirming that Zohan had been short on conditioning (he got tired) but had needed the experience of the race to improve. Zohan may race once more by closing day, and he's still considered Great Friends III's most promising athlete.
Another plus - their remaining three horses are also trained by the two top conditioners at Del Mar, O'Neill and John Sadler.
According to Lies, Bestdressed, a 5-year-old gelding with Sadler, has been "lightly penciled in" for a step up in class on the Pacific Classic undercard on Sunday. The other two, Self Insured and Oceanor, may race again in claimers before the end of the meet.
Morris is not hanging his head.
"I've enjoyed being an investor … and what we've accomplished. It's been a great experience I can't put into words. It's just been too much fun."