For Bernard Bond, a 64-year-old Maryland horseman who has been training thoroughbreds for some 40 years, 1980 was a sweet ordeal. It was, as he describes it now, not only one of the most physically and mentally punishing times of his career, but also, in the end, among the most rewarding. What Bond did was this: last spring he took charge of a confused, frightened 2-year-old named Cure the Blues, a colt who apparently couldn't run a lick, and by the conclusion of the season had turned him into perhaps the fastest young racehorse in America, an undefeated juvenile regarded by many as the legitimate winter-book favorite to win this year's Kentucky Derby. It all happened so suddenly.
"It was amazing," Bond says. "I've never had an experience like it. Cure the Blues went from a horse that I didn't think was worth a thousand dollars to being one of the best I've ever seen. When I found out he was insured for millions, I couldn't eat. Couldn't sleep. In the morning, at the end of a two-mile gallop, he'd rear up on his hind legs, jump and squeal and try to throw the boy off. I could hardly wait to get him off the racetrack. It was like sitting on a keg of dynamite. Fame is something. Prestige is something. Peace of mind is something else."
Now Bond has that something else. Late last fall, in an extraordinary move, he quietly told owner Bertram Firestone that it would be best if the colt were returned to the care of Firestone's regular trainer, LeRoy Jolley, for the Triple Crown campaign this spring. So, while Bond was watching over his horses at Maryland's Pimlico Race Course last week, Jolley saddled Cure the Blues at Florida's Hialeah for the colt's long-awaited first start of 1981. After stumbling to his knees at the break, the bay son of Stop the Music dashed back into the thick of it down the backstretch, tracked the pacesetter to the turn for home and then poured it on through the stretch to win by five lengths. Two days later, in the crowning race for 3-year-olds at Hialeah, Tap Shoes came from off the pace to win the $178,000 Flamingo Stakes. But the week, so far as Triple Crown contenders were concerned, belonged to Cure the Blues.
On Flamingo Day, back home in Tow-son, Md., Bond was observing an anniversary of sorts. It was on that date a year ago—March 28—that Cure the Blues came to him by van from New York. Jolley periodically sends to Bond the Firestone's "culls," as Bond calls them, youngsters that do not measure up to the more promising ones in the Firestone barn. "When you're dealing with a lot of young, well-bred horses, you're going to make some mistakes," Jolley says. "Cure the Blues was obviously one of them."
The mistake was not apparent when the colt first arrived in Maryland. "The first two weeks, he couldn't beat the lead pony," Bond says. "We had a cheap filly named Rossiter. I worked them together, and she took him by 10 lengths going a half mile. I thought to myself, 'Anyone can beat this horse.' Jockey Rudy Turcotte was at the barn one morning and I said, 'Rudy, one horse can't be that slow.' " But, apparently. Cure the Blues was.
What made it doubly exasperating, at least for groom Henry Borden, were the problems involved in simply getting the horse ready to train. Cure the Blues was so sensitive to anyone's fiddling with his head and ears that there were days when it took Borden an hour to put the colt's bridle on. It was so bad, he says, that he had to take the bridle apart into three separate pieces and put it on one piece at a time. Borden, a groom for 25 years, at times was reduced to tears by the ordeal. "I chased him all over the stall," Borden says. "I got so frustrated that some mornings he made me cry trying to put the bridle on him."
"You couldn't get close to him," Bond says. "He had no confidence in people. He'd run and bite at you. If you raised your hand, he'd run to the back of his stall and cower. He was a confused horse, like young children are sometimes confused. We couldn't gallop him. He'd try to go to the outside fence. He'd turn around. He'd rear." One morning, in fact, with Turcotte on his back, Cure the Blues reared so high that he lost his balance and flipped over backward.
"He'd do everything wrong," Bond says. "He watched everything. When a bird would fly by, he'd watch the bird. But I love to fool with 2-year-olds. One morning I put the blinkers on him."
Bond will not soon forget that morning. "Hit him on the rump two or three times coming out of the gate," he told Turcotte. With his mount wearing blinkers for the very first time—to keep his mind on his business and his eyes on the road—Turcotte gunned him out of the gate. The colt dug in and leveled out, running smoother and faster than anyone imagined he knew how. Bond watched in astonishment. "Here was a horse who couldn't go a halfmile in 52 [seconds], and he went in 46!" Bond says. "I could have dropped my watch! I said to Rudy, 'Uh-oh, we got something here.' "
Eager to find out exactly what he had, Bond entered him in a maiden race at Pimlico on April 16, only 19 days after the van ride from New York. Cure the Blues left the gate with a rush, making the lead like a scared buck, but once there he appeared to be confused, as if trying to figure what to do next. He began propping, digging in his toes to slow down, and veered toward the outside. Turcotte popped him on the side of his neck to keep him straight. As they turned for home, Rudy then smacked him hard on the rear. The colt accelerated in a burst of speed through the stretch to win by 10 lengths, in :58[4/5] for the five-eighths of a mile.
Bond had himself a racehorse, for sure. The colt bucked his shins in that first start, but the trainer was in no hurry. Cure the Blues also came down with a virus and, worst of all, developed a quarter crack in his right front foot. A plastic patch was screwed to the side of the hoof to hold the crack together. Meanwhile, Borden says, the colt became more tractable in his stall. Every day Bond would stop off at a local 7-11 store and buy peppermint and butterscotch candy. "Carry a piece with you at all times," Bond told Borden. "He'll come to you."
By the time the star of the Firestone stable, Genuine Risk, had won the Kentucky Derby last May, Cure the Blues had begun to settle down. Turcotte was at the stable every day to work with the colt, even if only to gallop him slowly, and often spent an hour on his back, walking him slowly to and from the track. "We babied him," Bond says. "He got confidence. If it hadn't been for Rudy, he wouldn't be half the horse he is."
By the fall, the colt could handle any 2-year-old in Maryland. He won two allowance races at Bowie easily, the first by 10 lengths and the second by seven, in a snappy 1:10 for six furlongs. Also at Bowie, he then won a division of the Marlboro Nursery Stakes by five lengths. In his last start of the year, the rich Laurel Futurity on Oct. 25, he set the pace and won off by himself, by almost seven lengths. For a colt who couldn't beat the stable pony in April, his 1980 record was arresting: five wins in five starts, by a total of 38½ lengths, and earnings of $131,102.
It had been a taxing year for Bond, one of sleepless nights and anxious days, and the hardest time was yet to come. Following the Laurel Futurity, the colt developed an infection in the quarter crack. One afternoon in mid-November, Firestone invited Bond to lunch at his Catoctin Stud in Waterford, Va. to discuss the quarter-crack problem with him and Jolley. Ever since Cure the Blues had begun to suggest that he was a classic horse, Bond had known that one day he would have to decide whether he would campaign the horse himself or give him back to Jolley. Firestone had encouraged Bond to keep the horse, telling him that he could get stalls in Florida for him over the winter.
Bond spent a good deal of time thinking about the matter. Cure the Blues was the best horse he had ever trained, his first genuine Derby prospect, and he wanted to do the right thing. By the time he arrived at the Firestone farm that afternoon, Bond had made up his mind. He was not feeling particularly well, and he decided that he would not be up to the strain of a Triple Crown campaign, with all that flying back and forth, the worries about the horse and the pressures from the media. Bond didn't care much for flying, and he didn't feel right about telling owners—those far less prominent than the Firestones—who had been with him for years that he was leaving them to hit the road.
When Firestone asked him what he planned to do, Bond said, "I think the horse belongs to someone who has been through it before. LeRoy's been through it all. I think it's best for everybody to let LeRoy have the horse."
Firestone understood. He thanked Bond for all he had done for the colt and then made him a promise: Bond would receive 10% of all the colt's winnings, just as if he were training the horse himself, and a percentage of the sum for which the colt is eventually syndicated—potentially a very lucrative commission in this day of multimillion-dollar syndications. Jolley understood, too, though he was surprised. "It was a sad thing," he says. "I felt bad for him. I didn't really know what I could do to enhance the colt. Bernie did a super job."
The task Jolley inherited will be no easy one. In his first start last week, while scrambling back to his feet at the break, the colt tore the shoe off his right front foot, the same one that had the quarter crack last year. It remains a source of concern. The crack is healed, but the holes made when the patch was attached to the hoof have weakened the hoof wall, making it difficult to keep a shoe nailed on tight. As the hoof grows out, the holes will eventually disappear, thus eliminating the problem. Jolley is hoping that the condition won't hamper Cure the Blues unduly in his next start, in this weekend's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
Borden, meanwhile, watches over the colt every day. Bond told Borden and the colt's hot-walker, Sara Townsend, that they could leave Maryland and stay with Cure the Blues if they chose to, which they did. The fates were not so kind to Turcotte. The rider followed the horse to Florida from his home in Maryland, hoping to keep the mount, but he galloped him for only a month before Jolley announced that he was replacing Turcotte with Jacinto Vasquez. Vasquez has ridden two Kentucky Derby winners for Jolley—Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk—and finished second with another. General Assembly. Jolley clearly feels more confident and comfortable with Vasquez. He says he hardly knows Turcotte. "I agonized over it," Jolley says.
It was a devastating blow for Turcotte. This was his big chance to emulate his older brother, Ron, who won the Triple Crown on Secretariat and the Kentucky Derby on Riva Ridge. Suddenly, in a stroke, the chance at money and fame—the chance to hit the big time in New York—was gone. Firestone told him of the change. "I felt like crying, to tell you the truth," Turcotte says.
"What's the mortgage on your house?" Firestone asked him after breaking the news.
"Forty thousand," Turcotte said.
"Tell you what," Firestone said. "If he wins any of the Triple Crown races, I'll pay it off for you. If this horse is as good as I think he is, there'll be enough for everybody." Turcotte thanked Firestone for that consolation.
Turcotte has lost none of his fondness for the colt. On the morning of Flamingo day, he stopped by the Firestone barn, chatted with the owner and then walked into the shed to the colt's stall. Cure the Blues stuck his head out the door. Turcotte kissed him on the chin. "I'll be rooting for him," he said.