Lil E. Tee was raised at Littman's Lil Stable, a leased farm in Pennington, N.J., across the Delaware River, a few miles from Washington's Crossing.
As a yearling, he underwent a major operation for colic. And when it was suggested to Littman that the horse would never be worth much of anything, he sold him for $2,000 to his blacksmith, figuring he would be ahead on the deal.
The blacksmith proceeded to sell the horse for $20,000 at a 2-year-olds in training sale last year.
When Lil E. Tee ran an impressive second in his first race at Calder last September, Cal Partee got involved.
Partee raced Lil E. Tee's sire, At the Threshold, who finished third in the '84 Derby. And when he heard about this good son of the sire he owned, he was interested. But before he could make an offer, Lil E. Tee won a maiden race by 11 1/2 lengths in very fast time.
The price was now $200,000, and Partee anted up. Every time this horse got sold, another zero was added. And now he is an unlikely Derby winner. Add another zero.
Littman, who grew up in North Philadelphia and lived much of his life in Elkins Park and Wyncote, watched the Derby from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He retired to Florida in 1984 and, after just three weeks of doing nothing, decided to find a hobby. He chose horse racing.
With the late Dennis "Goose" Heimer as his trainer, Littman had a tremendous run of good fortune. Many of his horses began their names with Lil, his initials. And several became stakes winners in the Delaware Valley and elsewhere. Lil Fappi, Lil Tyler, Cresta Lil, Lil Saucy and Lil Glenn L. have been among Littman's better runners. But he wasn't buying or breeding on the scale it normally takes to get to the Kentucky Derby.
Speaking from Florida, Littman didn't seem terribly upset to have sold the Derby winner for pocket change. He seemed more proud of being the breeder of the Derby winner.
"We claimed (Lil E. Tee's) mother (Eileen's Moment) for $20,000," Littman said. "She was bad, couldn't run a lick. I think she came in next to last once."
In her six career starts, Eileen's Moment earned $570. She was pretty sad. But Littman bred her and hoped. Her first two foals sold well at the sales and were decent runners. Then came Lil E. Tee.
"He was a good foal," said Mary Deppa, Littman's farm manager. "And he didn't get excited when his mom wasn't anywhere around. He'd be way back in the field, running around with the other foals and horses.
"Then, you'd hear him screaming his head off in the field. His mother would sort of look out there as if to say, that stupid kid. He was always losing her, like a little kid you take to the mall who always runs away. So we'd say, 'E.T.'s phoning home.' "
Thus, Lil E. Tee.
Littman's company made disposable sensing devices for molten steel. He had eight plants all over the world and worked out of the Philadelphia Industrial Park on Roosevelt Boulevard.
"That was science," Littman said. "We needed to get it to 2,800 degrees and we measured it within five degrees. There was no luck factor. It was fairly easy to control.
"Horse racing is the most inexact science I've ever seen. If you're not lucky, forget it."
After 24 years, Littman's business was a great success so he sold out in 1984 and retired. He always loved to watch horses and had a few dollars to spend. So he said, why not?
Heimer bought a few yearlings for him at Keeneland and he was off, an instant success.
Now, after watching a horse he bred, a horse he sold for $2,000, win the Derby, Littman has to be wondering just a bit about the fates. After all, he planned the mating for the horse who blew by Arazi, the horse that cost one of the richest men in the world $9 million for a half interest.
"In my business, I'd rather be a breeder," said Littman, looking at the bright side. "I have his yearling sister at my farm and she looks great."
And he has the mother, right? Well, no. Seems that a few months ago, just before Lil E. Tee got really good, Littman sold Eileen's Moment for $25,000 in foal to an obscure son of Northern Dancer, a Maryland stallion named El Raggaas. The foal was born three weeks ago.
"My timing was exemplary," Littman said with a laugh.
Well, he did get $48,000 and $40,000 for Eileen's Moment's first two foals and he does have that yearling sister.
"She's by Imperial Falcon," Littman said proudly. "This filly is absolutely beautiful. I've already gotten calls from people wanting to sell her at Saratoga."
Littman understands the whimsical nature of the horse business. It is anything but a science.
"We watch our horses in the paddock," Littman said. "And Lil E. Tee was a bad-moving horse. He lost a good percentage of his insides as a yearling."
Nobody knew what would happen two years later. Nobody could have known.
"He had a very bad case of colic," Deppa said. "It took him five weeks to get better and he kept having relapses. We finally had to open him up, and thank God we did. Or we might have lost him."
They took Lil E. Tee to Florida last year and he was turned down for the Ocala Breeders' Sale. Just didn't look good enough, apparently.
"The blacksmith sold the horse for $20,000 and he was the happiest guy in the world," Littman said. "The next guy sold him for $200,000. Everybody was happy. And so am I.
"Look, I sold a broodmare in foal to Alydar for $460,000 and a month later she aborted. I didn't give the money back."
As he watched the Derby, Littman wasn't behaving like most bettors who root against the horse they "wanted" to bet on, but didn't. He was cheering for Lil E. Tee.
"I watched him run in the Jim Beam and the Arkansas Derby," Littman said. "I thought he had a chance. But when he got pinched back on the first turn and Arazi flew right by him . . . "
Arazi moved first. But Lil E. Tee, a 16-1 shot ridden by Pat Day, the master of patience and a hard-luck loser all nine times he had ridden in the Derby, moved best, beating Casual Lies by a length.
"I'll have to put that winner's circle picture on the wall," Littman said. "I guess we can get a box at Pimlico (for the Preakness) now after breeding the winner of the Kentucky Derby."
Lil E. Tee ran the 1 1/4 miles in 2:04, time that probably isn't as bad as it appears, given that the track was getting slower as the day wore on.
"I have no regrets," Deppa said. "This has been the highlight of our lives. If he had gone to somebody else, maybe things would have been done differently and none of this would have happened."
Still, everybody wants to breed and own a Derby winner. That's the big payoff.
"The way my luck is going," Littman said, "I ought to sell the good- looking lines and keep the bums. Anything I could sell for $2,000, I'm definitely going to keep."
By the way, one horse did run in Littman's colors Saturday. Topretariat was the 5-2 second choice in the 12th race at Philadelphia Park, an hour before the Derby. He finished last.