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Kentucky Confidential

The Bittersweet Derby Dreams of Sunny’s Halo

“Who needs the past? Horse racing is a world of a million tomorrows.” — Backstretch credo

Well, this is the way it is whether it’s Derby time in the Blue Grass or dreaming time on the backstretches at Pocatello Downs, Timonium or Green Mountain Park.

If wishes were trifectas, railbirds would drive Cadillac’s, owners with bigger egos than a horses’ rear would get to smell the Derby roses, and trainers with only three horses in the barn and an overdue feed bill stamped “third notice” would still dream of an acre of long-delayed tomorrows.

In the late 1940s, a young Canadian named Dave Cross, who was born in the shadow of a defunct Vancouver racetrack, began to work on a resume built on a chain of hope, overdue tomorrows and dreams deferred: hot walker, stall mucker, rider of third-rate thoroughbreds, five years a saddle soaper and racing-silks custodian in the jocks’ room, 25 years training on a hard knocks circuit.

Then, he faced the ultimate decision — making a choice between his convictions and paying for groceries.

Cross had a 35-horse public stable. One of his owners was a man named David J. Foster, who gave him the colt that put him at a fork in his hardscrabble road between a treadmill of ordinary yesterdays and the seductive promise of tomorrow’s rainbow.

The horse was named Sunny’s Halo, and it was Cross who had convinced Foster to breed Mostly Sunny, his own mare, to a stud named Halo. Reassured by his own judgment that had generated the breeding, he was convinced the colt would finally morph into his long-sought ticket to the Kentucky Derby.

That’s what he told his stable. Well, the term “stable” might be a bit of an over-reach. There was Cross, his wife, Patty, and a fellow whose square name was John Sears, Jr., but who had always been called Top Cat by everybody on the race track.

“For a long time,” Top Cat said the day after they won the Kentucky Derby, “it was (the horse), Dave and me with a little help from Patty. I rubbed him and Dave walked him.”

They had been hard pressed to handle their original 35 before Sunny’s Halo showed up. Once he did, Cross gave almost all the time he could muster to the colt he expected to become his “getaway” horse. The owners of the other horses in his stable were furious and took them away.

“We were down to three,” Patty recalled. “They were tough times.”

Sunny’s Halo began to win in Canada. “It didn’t prove a thing,” Cross said. “He won, but he beat nothing in Canada that mattered. Absolutely nothing.”

The victories on the home court had earned him $239,839. It also got him a very sore foot. Yet Cross was excited. So was Foster. Your basic witch doctor could have diagnosed both of them in a nanosecond. They had contracted Derby Fever. No serum, no pill and no health food can fix it.

The only known cure is reality.

So, armed with the victories and the money and the knowledge that Northern Dancer was the only other Canadian-bred to have ever won the roses, they set off to make history in America. Or, so they thought.

The humans, fortunately, didn’t have to do the running. Sunny’s Halo did, and the sore foot morphed into a damned spear that shot fire through his very nerve endings. After failures in the 1982 Laurel Futurity and the Young America at the Meadowlands and the combined 28 lengths by which he had been beaten, Cross felt reality tap him on the shoulder.

Either he would find a solution or Sunny’s Halo would be running on his knees. He had stress fractures in both legs. The colt’s season as a 2-year old was over.

They took him to Hollywood Park. You couldn’t be sure whether their new battle plan would take him to the Derby or to the 1500-meter Olympic free style finals. Each day they had him swim in the track’s equine pool. It kept the pressure off his shins while he built added muscle.

Finally, he healed and was ready to run, and Cross laid out a bold plan. He would come to the Kentucky Derby with just two starts as a 3-year old, the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. In the end, he would emerge as the lightest raced 3-year old of any Derby winner since Jet Pilot in 1947.

The night before the Derby, David, Patty and Top Cat slept in Sunny’s Halo’s barn with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In Patty’s pants pocket was a $200 Vegas win ticket on the horse at odds of 100-1. After what happened the next day, nobody dared to say that Sunny’s Halo’s baby sitters wouldn’t share a bucket of caviar in the stable the night before his next race.

It is a magnificent story of courage and perseverance. Would that its post script could be as happy. All Derby week, Patty Cross was the queen of the backstretch. She regaled the media with the story of how, at the bar she ran, she had created a drink called Sunny’s Halo. She endeared them with her stories abut the tough times Sunny’s dream team had endured during the quest. She never told them that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

She was dying.

Cross continued to train. At Arlington Park, he treated an ailing horse with a substance that he did not know was on the state’s banned list. When the test results surfaced, the track stewards figured he would have to take a four-day ban. After all, in more than 30 years no body of stewards ever had to discipline him.

Instead, the state set him down for months. To fight the ban and its stigma he spent $150,000 trying to clear his name. The joy of his wife’s smile was fading now. Medical bills ripped the family’s finances apart. They were the roughest times in Cross’ life. He sold his Derby trainer’s trophy for less than $9,000.

Then he disappeared from the spotlight. Two years later, Cross was training quarter horses and trying to buy some cheap California-bred with which to return to thoroughbred racing. In 1991, he returned to the Derby with Quintana and finished sixth.

Two horsemen who had been associated with him bought back the Derby trainer’s trophy on eBay and donated it to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame into which Cross had been inducted in 2006.

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Author PhotoWorking from Churchill Downs undercover, Blinkers Off is a legendary, award-winning sports writer spinning tall tales from Derbies past. More by  ›