BALTIMORE - It was a concrete and asphalt haven for city kids with nowhere else to go. When they weren't playing softball and basketball at P.S. 187 in the Douglaston-Little Neck section of Queens, young horseplayers fantasized about making scores.
Eric Fein and his buddies would spend summer afternoons at nearby Belmont Park and evenings at Roosevelt or Yonkers, then go back to the schoolyard to rehash the hits and bad beats deep into the night.
"It was a big gambling area,'' Fein said. "My parents didn't like me gambling, so I had to kind of sneak it in. Our mothers would always tell us: 'Just make sure you're home before your father gets up for work.'
"It was cement, but that's Queens. It was a great place where hundreds of kids would hang out. We didn't get in trouble, and nobody would bother us. A lot of those guys are still part of the crew I'm friends with.'''
Unlike most people bitten young by the racing bug, the Jericho resident has made his visions happen. The owner of a title insurance business in Syosset hit big with his first claim, Rogue Agent, a $30,000 buy in 2003 who made almost $500,000 for him. His biggest splash came with Musket Man, who ran third last year in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
"We're always excited about the big races,''' said Fein, who admits most of his runners have been slow. "It never gets old, especially when we think we have a talented horse.'''
Fein feels that way about a colt running Saturday at Pimlico. He's called Schoolyard Dreams.
Fein named the son of Stephen Got Even to commemorate his youth, which was glory days with a Racing Form. Schoolyard Dreams is the only Preakness contender to have finished ahead of Derby winner Super Saver, and if everything breaks right, Fein thinks it could happen again.
"In the Tampa Bay Derby, we went past Super Saver like he was standing still,'' Fein said. "Ramon [Dominguez] was on Super Saver and said that horse was fully cranked.''
Unfortunately, Jeremy Rose unleashed Schoolyard Dreams' quick move much too soon, and they lost by a nostril hair to Odysseus. Super Saver was third, a half-length behind.
"I still don't believe I lost that photo,'' Fein said. Victory would have given Schoolyard Dreams enough graded-stakes earnings to make the Derby field. But now to get in he had to finish at least second April 3 in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. A distant fourth behind Eskendereya meant no trip to Louisville.
"He had an 18-hour van ride from Tampa to Philadelphia Park and only three weeks' rest,'' Fein said. "He's not a big horse like Musket Man, so he needs more time between races. Some of that took its toll, and we know the Schoolyard Dreams we saw in the Wood wasn't him.'''
A six-week layoff and a 5-furlong workout in 59 3/5 seconds last week at Monmouth Park have fired up Fein, co-owner Tony Mitola and trainer Derek Ryan. "He's coming into the race the right way,''' Ryan said. "He's not a robust horse, so I think he'll really benefit by skipping the Derby.'''
Fein liked the post Schoolyard Dreams drew Wednesday and was surprised by his 15-1 morning line. "The 2 is perfect,'' he said. "I think Eibar Coa should be in a cozy little spot, and I think our odds will be lower than that by post time.
"Schoolyard Dreams' problem is he's still immature. His mind hasn't caught up to his body yet. If it does and we can get that talent out, we'll have a very good chance Saturday.''