Two weeks ago, about half an hour after Slew O' Gold had upset Bates Motel in the $200,000 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park, David Cross Jr., the trainer of 1983 Kentucky Derby winner Sunny's Halo, walked into Esposito's Tavern across from the track, sat down on a stool and delivered a soliloquy of frustration. "What the hell did that race do to the 3-year-old situation?" he began. "As far as I'm concerned it just confused it even more. And it wasn't good for my horse. The way things have been going for Sunny's Halo and me, the next thing that goes right for us will be the first one since the seventh of May. There have been days when I thought that the worst thing that ever happened to both of us was winning the Derby. The days since have certainly been no picnic."
There's an old adage about horse trainers that says: Any man that gives up a stable full of horses to stick with only one is a fool. Early this year Cross abandoned the 30 other horses in his charge to stay with Sunny's Halo. Last Saturday afternoon at Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, that decision was fully vindicated by his copper-colored colt, who ran away with Super Derby IV by 10 lengths. At the finish of the $500,000, 1-mile race, the horse closest to Sunny's Halo was Play Fellow, the winner of three consecutive major stakes, the Arlington Classic, the American Derby and the Travers Stakes. Not only did Sunny's Halo blow out the rest of the field, he also tied the track record of 2:01[3/5].
When Cross paraded Sunny's Halo to the winner's circle there were tears behind his sunglasses and he was trembling. He didn't hoot, holler or gloat at a time when he had every right to do so. When things go wrong with a one-horse stable, a trainer, as Cross says, "can go absolutely bonkers, second-guess himself from morning to night." Now those misgivings had been erased.
Between winning the Kentucky Derby and the Super Derby, Cross and his horse had gone through thoroughbred hell. Sunny's Halo has had a skin infection, a respiratory ailment, a sore ankle, bleeding, fierce allergies to dirt and dust, a severe weight loss and great difficulty coping with the heat of one of the hottest summers on record.
For weeks before the Super Derby, Cross could be found morning and night grazing Sunny's Halo on the backstretch of either Saratoga or Belmont Park, walking him in large circles to try to keep the oppressive heat from bothering the colt. "It seems that everyone has given up on my horse," he said one day. "Some are even laughing at him now. I know that he hasn't made much money since the Kentucky Derby [only $27,312], but I guess I'm just too stubborn to quit on him. I'm not going to quit on him. I've forgotten the number of veterinarians we've used. Maybe six. Maybe nine. There was also a dermatologist."
Clearly, Sunny needed to win the Super Derby—or he would be remembered as just a horse that got lucky on the first Saturday in May. But even that visit to Churchill Downs wasn't all that lucky.
When Sunny's Halo arrived there, he was given a special saddle cloth with a number on it so that the press could identify him in the morning workouts. After Sunny's second time on the track, however. Cross noticed a rash starting to develop on his horse. Cross felt that the numbers on the cloth might have been the cause. He removed the cloth, but Sunny's Halo remained bothered by the rash. Still, Sunny won the Kentucky Derby by two very impressive lengths.
After the Derby, Sunny's rash went wild. The rash—or rashes—seemed to vary in intensity depending on the weather, Sunny's surroundings and, perhaps, his mood. About one thing there was no doubt: When Sunny's skin was tender he didn't perform very well.
Unfortunately. Sunny's skin ailments seemed to worsen at Pimlico, home of the Preakness. Syndications were forming to buy the colt, but the prices were contingent on his winning the Preakness. Sunny's Halo finished sixth.
Subsequently the colt, who remained afflicted by the rashes to varying degrees, finished fourth in the Arlington Classic and came in third in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. "In the Whitney he was only beaten by three-quarters of a length while stuck down on a dead rail," Cross says. "When I tried to get him ready for the Travers two weeks later, the problems started up again."
Heat was one of them, along with humidity. Cross spent hours trying to make Sunny comfortable. He had one fan placed above the horse's back, and another on the ground in front of him—blowing toward his face. He sprayed water in front of Sunny's stall to keep the dust and dirt from getting to the horse's sensitive skin. Rather than bedding Sunny down in straw, he used wood shavings. Cross was hot-walker, groom, day watchman, part-time night watchman, one-man band.
Four days before he was to ship Sunny's Halo to Louisiana Downs, Cross found hope. "The weather was getting a bit cooler in New York," he says, "and the nights weren't that humid. But I knew that the weather in Louisiana could be bad." Indeed, it can be. It isn't uncommon for horses to dehydrate in the heat and humidity there. Two days before Super Derby IV, Sunny's Halo arrived at Louisiana Downs to find the weather relatively temperate. "If this holds," Cross said, "we may be O.K." When Cross arrived at the barn on race day at 5:45 a.m., Sunny was bouncing up and down.
"This horse will run good," Cross said. "I'm going to tell Laffit [Jockey Laffit Pincay Jr.] to lay second behind Desert Wine and not let him steal off to a big lead. That is the key to the race. Sunny's Halo is as good now as any time before the Kentucky Derby."
Breaking from the inside post position. Desert Wine shot to the front, and Sunny's Halo moved into second place around the first turn. At the‚Öú pole Sunny's Halo moved in front, and with a quarter of a mile remaining, he had a 1½-length lead. He almost cantered home.
Sunny's Halo's win jumped his purse earnings to $1.2 million lifetime and $991,962 for the year. Despite all his troubles, he has won the two richest Grade I races for 3-year-olds run in the U.S. this year. Early Sunday morning, horse and trainer got onto a charter that flew them home to California.
"When I get to Santa Anita," Cross said, "the first thing I will do is go out and buy two fans for Sunny's Halo."