“I just had to have this horse, he was crazy, but I had to have him.”
These are the words of former jockey Rene Douglas, and the driving force behind Good Friends Stable, a diverse collection of friends from Chicago, and the owners of Private Zone, a hopeful participant in this year’s Dubai Golden Shaheen.
Private Zone, a four-year-old gelding, was bred in Canada and shipped off to Panama after being purchased for $15,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September sale. A son of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Macho Uno, he won four races from nine starts in Panama, including a Group 1 event over six furlongs on dirt at Hipodromo Presidente Remon.
“The form does not reflect what this horse actually did. He’s crazy.”
Crazy might not even be the right word. To better understand Private Zone, you absolutely must watch the attached videos in this blog. The magnitude of the horse’s talents and mentality are lost without a view of the videos. On April 8, 2012, Private Zone broke well, as he normally does, and leaving the chute in a 1,300-meter conditions race, he planted when seeing the temporary rail, tossing the jockey. He was the 1-9 favorite and never made it a half-furlong. Watch the race below.
He returned in seven days where the wary public installed him an 18-1 longshot before he summarily slapped them silly, winning the Clasico F A Paredes & A A Espinosa (G1). Two weeks later, his connections tried him over a longer 2,000-meter trip in the Clasico Dia Internactional del Trabajador (G1). After breaking on top and opening a lead, he just stopped going around the first turn as his eleven rivals dangerously soared past him, never finishing. Watch this race below.
But Douglas was captivated with the race that would be Private Zone’s last in Panama, run on May 20.
“Things are a bit different in Panama. Riders go without saddles in the morning, riding cowboy style, and the jocks ended up that way on him a few times in races, but that last race was incredible”
Private Zone broke on top in an allowance race, streaking to a clear lead of approximately five lengths before suddenly applying the brakes, maintaining the partnership jockey A A Rivas, riding out of the irons yet again. While backing up, Private Zone bumped 1-5 favorite El Celestial, and Rivas pulled Private Zone to the outside, regaining both his irons after a likely painful and frightening 200-meter ride. Watch this race below.
Trakus would likely have a field day gauging the speed variations and ground loss Private Zone endured during this trip, but it would not matter. Rivas, likely frightened by the prospects of doing anything but remaining motionless, barely asked his mount to run. Private Zone won in hand by a length.
Born and raised in Panama, Rene Douglas came to ride in America in 1983 and crisscrossed the country. “Lots of people asked me why I moved around so much,” Douglas recalled, “but I liked it.”
Replacing Gary Stevens, sidelined with a shoulder injury, Douglas took the mount on Editor’s Note in the 1996 Belmont Stakes, his first and only ride in the third leg of America’s Triple Crown, and a ride that still baffles jockeys in 2013.
“In January, I saw Angel Cordero [a winner of more than 7,000 races, including three Kentucky Derbies] and Jose Santos, who rode Skip Away to second in that race. Cordero asked me: ‘How the hell did you win the Belmont with Editor’s Note? That horse never won.’ I told him I rode my ass off.”
In the minutes after the Belmont win, trainer D. Wayne Lukas, interviewed on the ABC broadcast of the race, was tickled by the success of a horse who had failed to win in nine consecutive races.
“Rene got him into the race earlier…and when he really got into him, I think it made the difference. His riding style…was vintage world class.”
Douglas viewed his success in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) with Dreaming of Anna as a career highlight. “She was so hard to rate, she always wanted to do more and more, and if you let her do it early in the race, she’d tire. Winning the Breeders’ Cup was huge.”
Douglas won six titles riding at Arlington Park, and it was where his career as a jockey came to a sudden end. On May 23, 2009 in the Arlington Matron Handicap, Douglas’s mount Born To Be clipped heels at the top of the stretch and went down, landing on top of Douglas, pinning him to the track surface. He remains paralyzed.
Dr. Hilton Gordon, a practicing internist in the Chicago area, has owned horses in partnership with his good friend Mike Stiegel since 1987. Douglas rode their horses at times over the years and their families grew close as well. Gordon was at Arlington the day of the accident.
“I jumped the rail and ran out there,” Gordon recounted. “Natalia [Rene’s wife] called me when I was out there and asked me not to leave him until she got there, and I didn’t.”
Douglas had plenty of friends from his years riding at Arlington. A selection of his closest maintained a constant vigil during his battle. “I knew some of these guys a bit,” Gordon said, “others not as much, but we all got very close through Rene’s battle”
Among the small band of loyal friends was Denis Savard, a National Hockey League Hall of Famer with 539 goals from 1,365 games. “I grew up in Montreal, and my family would take me to Blue Bonnets Raceway,” Savard boasted with pride. “I went to the track for the first time when I was twelve, and I loved it.”
In a career which spanned 19 NHL seasons, Savard played for the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, and the Tampa Bay Lightning. “Most people don’t remember I played in Tampa, but I loved going to the greyhound races, and I used to play the simulcasts from Calder. That’s where I first started following Rene.” Savard played his final game in 1997 with Chicago and remains a frequent visitor to Arlington Park and his local off-track wagering centre. Dave Flanzbaum, a businessman, handicapper and horse owner also stood by Douglas, so too did “Judge Joe” Casciato, who spent years behind the bench in Illinois’s Cook County and has served on the Illinois Racing Board.
“One of us was always there, straight through until Rene got out of the hospital,” said Dr. Gordon. “We were all friends of Rene’s from different arenas, but with a common interest in racing.”
After his release from Northwestern University Hospital in September 2009, Douglas retreated to his home in Florida, where months-long depression set in. “He wouldn’t talk much,” Gordon recalled, “except to the gang from the hospital – his good friends – and whenever we went down to Florida, he came out of his shell.”
“Rene kept saying he wanted to repay us and he’d find a horse” for this group of now much closer friends. “We gave him that opportunity and knew that one way or the other, we were going to help Rene help himself.”
The Good Friends Stable was formed, a syndicate that primarily included Douglas, Casciato, Flanzbaum, Gordon, and Savard, with their unintended ring-leader Douglas landing a $60,000 private purchase in early 2010 – Golden Moka. A Canadian-bred racing in sprints at Hipodromo Presidente Remon, it seemed an unlikely spot to find a horse eligible for the $500,000 second leg of Canada’s Triple Crown. As a result of his foaling location, Golden Moka was given an initial goal for the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Fort Erie, and the fairy tale began.
“He had never been over more than six furlongs, but we figured we would give him a chance to prove himself over longer.”
They found the right spot winning the Prince of Wales, but Golden Moka was, as Gordon called it, a “one-hit wonder.” Dealing with various setbacks and niggling injuries, the son of Golden Missile was retired in March 2012. Good Friends Stable needed another horse.
“TRAIN HIM LIKE HE IS A TWO-YEAR_OLD”
Douglas watched the races from Panama, and knew they had something with Private Zone. “The track there is so deep, slow, and tiring,” Douglas rattled, “and he was running races significantly faster than normal.”
It was fairly easy for Rene to find Private Zone. His brother, Remedio, was Private Zone’s Panamanian trainer.
“I felt bad taking him away, but he has his hands full and I offered him a share in the horse, but he said no. We got him for $80,000.”
As they did with Golden Moka, Douglas was planning to send Private Zone to Canada, but a series of quarantine issues prevented that, and Douglas audibled the gelding to California to the care of Doug O’Neill, who had just won the Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another.
“I called him and said that no matter what you do, watch these videos, and train him like he’s never been to the track, train him like he is a two-year-old, because you have to find a way to break these bad habits. I don’t care how long it would take, just teach him right.”
Private Zone didn’t dump any riders, but displayed some of his usual antics throughout his training, balking, propping, and waiting for other horses to come to him. After some time, O’Neill worked him with a 2-year-old he summarily trounced by ten lengths. That horse turned out to be He’s Had Enough, who ran second in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), beaten a neck by Shanghai Bobby.
“They knew they had a good horse.”
Private Zone made his American debut at Del Mar over seven furlongs, running fourth beaten four lengths behind Grade 1 winner Coil, and then was fourth in the El Cajon Stakes over a mile where he pulled right from the start and was never comfortable.
“Doug and his team seemed very pleased with him,” Gordon recalled, “and we took a real chance to send him to Philadelphia.”
Private Zone was shipped 3,000 miles to run in the Gallant Bob Handicap, where he carried top weight as a winner of a Group 1 race against older horses. The track at Parx Racing was notably favoring horses racing wide, and that quirky surface produced 14-1 shot Well Spelled flying over the crown of the course to win. The second from the Gallant Bob was Trinniberg, who went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in his subsequent start. Watch the Gallant Bob below.
“The race at Parx proved so much to us,” said Gordon. “It was $12,000 to fly him and he earned $33,000 from the race – given the way the track played that day, we really thought he was moving in the right direction.”
In four starts since, Private Zone has run second in every race – the Damascus (Listed), Vernon Underwood (G3), Malibu (G1) and Palos Verdes (G2) – never beaten more than 1 ¼ lengths. Martin Pedroza, a fellow Panamanian, is Private Zone’s regular rider.
“There is no doubt in my mind he fits in the Golden Shaheen,” Douglas said. “We’re just hoping we can get invited.”
Kinsale King, who won the 2010 Dubai Golden Shaheen, won the Underwood by a neck and the Palos Verdes by a half-length. Private Zone lost each by a length, but ran a race between those efforts in the Grade 1 Malibu, getting caught by Jimmy Creed late in that seven-furlong test. It seems he does indeed belong. The invitation will have to come from the Dubai Racing Club, but the track record of this gelding looks better than his past performances indicate. Overall, Private Zone has three wins and seven placings from 16 lifetime starts – but if you eliminate the frenzied performances where he lost jockeys or balked and stopped before his American retraining, his record improves to ten finishes in the top three from 13 attempts. “We’re slowly adjusting everything we do with him, because you just don’t know what he’ll do,” Douglas said.
“Every time he looks like he’s going to get passed, he just keeps fighting. Seriously, we are afraid of taking the blinkers off entirely – so we keep clipping the size of the cups to get smaller and smaller, I do it myself,” Douglas glowed. “I just sent a new pair off to the barn with a half-inch cup. He doesn’t see the competition go by, but when he does, he’s re-rallied. Just yanking them off, though, is a scary thought.”
Dr. Gordon estimates he’s been involved with ownership of about 100 horses in his 25 years of racing. “No doubt, he’s the best I’ve been a part of, and it’s not even close.”
It’s not about the money, though, it’s about the experience.
“Rene doesn’t really go to the track, and hasn’t much since the spill. But he assures us that he and his wife will come to Dubai, to do this as a group, if we get the invitation from the Racing Club.”
Going to the track miles away from his home has been a near impossibility, let alone one on the edge of the Emirati desert. “Honestly, I’m not really into racing. I don’t follow the Derby trail,” says Douglas, his voice distinctively introspective. “I’m not going to lie, I miss riding. No one wants to end their career like that.” Yet, when Douglas speaks about Private Zone, and the collective pleasure they all gain from the exploits of a horse who hasn’t even won under their ownership despite placing in Grade 1, 2, and 3 stakes, the excitement is palpable.
“It makes me so happy to see him and hear him talk about this horse,” beamed Denis Savard. “I want this, we all want this, for Rene. That’s what it’s all about.” Amusingly, Douglas tells the same story.
“None of them have ever had a horse like this,” Douglas ends. “I’m doing this for them, and they are doing it for me.”
That’s what good friends do.