Super Derby meaningful for Douglas

BOSSIER CITY, La. -- Once horse racing's in your blood, they say, there's no way to remove it.

But of all people, Rene Douglas had the right to try.

Paralyzed in his lower extremities in a career-ending spill on May 23, 2009, the former jockey spent this past year out of the spotlight, quietly attempting to heal from physical and emotional scars he incurred when his mount fell and landed on top of him at Arlington Park. He's a very private person, and he hasn't been back to the track. Still, in spite of his absence, his ties to a sport he's known since childhood remain strong.

Now the best therapy in the world for Douglas has been found in the form of a thoroughbred -- 3-year-old Golden Moka -- who upset the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes a few months ago and could be favored in Saturday's $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs.

It's the kind of story you only find in racing.

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Douglas grew up in Panama in a family of talented horsemen. There, the sport is big for the people, in spite of the fact that most runners are only worth a couple thousand dollars. Those in racing pursue competition because they love it, and owners train their own starters and take care of them.

Perhaps that's why, even after his devastating accident, the former jockey could not completely get away from the sport. His closest friends remain involved, and his brother still trains in Panama. So one day this April, when his brother casually sent along a link to a website showing a promising colt for sale in their native country, Douglas agreed to take a look. He hadn't watched many races since the spill, but interest in the colt's potential gave him the will to try.

"I watched his three races over and over and over," Douglas said. "When I saw this horse run, he really impressed me. The more I watched him, the more I liked him. For some reason, I knew he would turn out to be good. I thought, this horse can improve 10 lengths off what I see, if I get him out of Panama."

The colt was a Canada-bred son of Golden Missile who had been purchased by Panamanian owners for $8,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale in 2008. Racing in South America, he was unbeaten as a 2-year-old with victories in a maiden race, an allowance event and a Group 3 start. He won those races by a combined 18-length margin in three months, and only became available because his owner passed away.

"Rene called me one night and said he put some buddies together to buy this horse out of Panama," trainer Brian Lynch said. "He sent me a link where I could watch the horse run, and you could definitely see he had some talent."

A group of six Chicago-area natives, including Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Savard, got together to form "Good Friends Stable," plunking down $50,000 and an additional $20,000 in shipping costs to purchase the colt and bring him to North America at Douglas' request. The guys knew Douglas from his years as a leading rider at Arlington and had stuck by him and his family through the difficult months following his accident and recovery.

"In all of my time at Arlington Park, these guys became really good friends of mine and we were really tight," Douglas said. "They never had the chance to have this kind of horse and I always joked with them, 'Somehow I'm going to get you a really good runner.'''

That is exactly what he did.

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Golden Moka was placed in Lynch's care when he arrived in the United States in early May, but he caught a stable virus after shipping and missed the $1 million Queen's Plate, a prestigious Canadian race for which his owners were ambitiously pointing.

"Once the horse got over the virus, the more he worked the better he got," Douglas remembered. "We were like one or two works behind making the Prince of Wales and I told Brian, 'If you can get him ready for that race without really pushing much, I like that.'"

The other owners asked about a more conservative approach, perhaps running in an allowance race to see what kind of runner they had, like people usually do. But Douglas knew the horse was better.

"No," he told them. "He's going to run 1-2."

On July 25, racing for the first time in eight months and stretching out to 1 3/16-miles for the first time ever, Golden Moka was sent off at odds of 10-1 in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie Race Track in Ontario, Canada. There, he blew away a field of top contenders, including Queen's Plate winner Big Red Mike, winning by 2 ¾ lengths. Although it was his first time going longer than six furlongs, the way he rolled to victory confirmed what his new owners had been thinking all along.

Douglas wasn't in the country. Ironically, he was in Panama, receiving stem cell treatment as part of his quest to walk again. He couldn't find the race on TV, but his cousin pulled it up on the computer and they all gathered around, hoping it wouldn't freeze or lose the connection.

"I don't have any feeling in my legs, but I felt like I was riding that horse from my chair," Douglas said. "I hit myself in the leg like I was riding. I was so excited when the horse won that race, it was one of the best feelings I've had in the whole time since the accident."

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According to Lynch and Douglas, jockey Anthony Stephen was a vital part of that change from sprinter to stayer. We last caught up with Stephen in December at Tampa Bay Downs, where the 36-year-old rider was attempting to make a living in an overcrowded Florida colony. Now he's back in Canada, where he recently teamed up with Lynch to work many of his trainees in the morning hours. One of those horses was Golden Moka.

"I got on him every day for about three weeks before the Prince of Wales," Stephen said. "He's fun to be around; he's a happy horse. Brian told me the plan was to get him to relax because they were thinking of running him in the Prince of Wales and now he's a horse you can pretty much do anything with because he's started to relax and he's effortless, and the way he ran last time after being off for so long was amazing."

Lynch suggested giving Stephen the mount in the Prince of Wales because of his familiarity with Fort Erie's surface and turns. Douglas approved after reviewing YouTube videos of the jockey in the saddle.

"Believe me, this kid can ride," Douglas said. "I like the way he's patient and he finishes strong. He was so excited about riding the horse, and on the day of the race all I did is wish him luck. I said, 'Listen, ride the horse like you own him.' And that's what he did. He gave him an excellent ride."

Lynch said he has no qualms about leaving Stephen in the saddle for the 1 1/8-mile feature in Louisiana, because the jockey knows the horse. And even though temptation was there to change to a big-name rider and agents were calling, Douglas never wavered.

"I told my partners, 'The only way he's not going to ride that horse in the Super Derby is if I'm dead tomorrow,' he said. "I would never put up a bad rider in a big race. If I wanted to put a guy on a horse to help him out, I'd put him in a claiming race. But this guy is good, believe me. I know about riders."

"Horses like this don't come along every day," said Stephen, who got his biggest stakes score to date in the Prince of Wales. "I'm glad to be a part of the team this Saturday and I'm going to do my utmost to win the race. It was classy of them to keep me on the horse and it's exciting to be in the race, but it makes me even happier to have a chance to give something back to them. I want to do this for these people. They're a nice team to be involved with."

Obviously, riding high on their recent success, the connections are confident. They face a small field of just five other starters, and in Lynch's mind, they have the horse to beat.

"I think he'll move forward off his last race and I have no doubt he can get this distance," the trainer said.

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Douglas won't go to the race. He isn't ready and doesn't want to face the wave of emotions he knows would hit him.

"I'm excited about this horse, but there's another part of me that's not ready to go there yet," he said. "I hope one day I will go, definitely. I know everybody wants to see me there and I'm just taking my time. A lot of people know I'm a kind of private person, but a lot of people have wished me the best. And believe me, I appreciate that. This horse really is helping me heal, and it's an awesome experience for me to be part of the ownership group and to watch all my friends enjoy the game and the sport they love."

So if you catch the running of Saturday's Super Derby, root for the brilliant chestnut runner with the big white blaze. He'll be racing to maintain his perfect win streak, to take his next step up in class and distance, and to prove right those who invested in him with a little bit of money and a whole lot of hope.

No one knows how good he could be, or how far he can go.

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.