BY JIM WELLS
The barn thirty feet away is engulfed in flames. Black smoke billows from the inferno into your stalls and shed rows, making it difficult to breathe at times and nearly impossible to see at others.
There are 500 horses on the grounds, many of them on the loose, fear driving them up and down the pathways between the stables and throughout the grounds.
The Santa Ana winds shift without warning, making it impossible to predict where the fire now raging through several barns will spread next. Palm trees surrounding the stables explode like Fourth of July bottle rockets when the fires reach them.
Horses from the neighboring barns panic, running into your stable and up and down the shed rows. Some of them, confused, race around their blazing structure and then return to their stalls where they cannot be reached or saved.
Trainer Michelle Dollase and her son, Austin Nakatani, were busy in their barn, immediately adjacent to the one on fire. “It was hot, very hot,” she said. “We could feel it burning our faces.”
Some 23 horses died on that December day in 2017 at the San Luis Rey training center in Southern California. Not a single horse under Dollase’s care was injured.
The fickle winds and fire left the Dollase barn untouched. None of her horses, despite their proximity to the blaze, was harmed and none had to be moved to safety.
“We got very lucky,” she said. “Not a single horse of ours jumped the webbing in its stall. We didn’t have to let any of our horses out. The flames were 30 feet away from us and all we could do was watch the barn burn.”
And panic-stricken horses race about. “We nearly got run over several times,” she said. In one case, an outrider was run over, suffering several broken ribs and skull lacerations.
Half of the barns on the grounds were destroyed, the result of a freeway car fire that spread into the surrounding hills and grounds near the training center.
One of the horses under Dollase’s care that day was a two-year-old named Hardboot, a calm, easy-going colt so relaxed when he runs that she sometimes thinks he will fall asleep, dozing as he does at the rear end of the pack.
“The jockey sometimes has to wake him up,” she said.
Hardboot took a tour of the paddock at Canterbury Park Friday morning, acquainting himself with his new surroundings. He stood outside his barn where he is stabled and grazed for some time under Nakatani’s watchful eye.
Hardboot will run in the $200,000 Mystic Lake Derby, the richest race of the Canterbury meet, on Saturday night, one of 14 horses in the field. The easy-going colt seemed receptive to his new surroundings as Nakatani gave him a tour on Friday morning, after an all-night van trip from Louisville, where he was flown from California.
Sometimes you have to take the plane available to you in the horse business.
Hardboot is by Lucky Pulpit from the Cryptoclearance mare Mme. Espionage. He is 2-1-0 from seven career starts and has earned $132,665. With no races to fit him in California, Dollase decided to give the Mystic Lake Derby a try after consulting with others in the business familiar with the Shakopee track.
Dollase said she ran out of state-bred races for Hardboot in California. “And he’s not ready for older horses,” she said. “He’s still kind of immature.” He will break from the No. 7 hole as a 10-1 morning line selection on Saturday.
Hardboot has finished first and second in his last two starts, both stakes. He won the $100,000 Silky Sullivan at Golden Gate Fields on April 29, and was a hard charging second before running out of ground on June 2 in the $192,000 Snow Chief at Sanita Anita. All of his races except the first have been at a mile or more so Saturday’s mile distance is not an issue.
Taking a snooze as he likes to do might be, although Dollase has confidence in rider Dean Butler after inquiring about him.
Hardboot came four wide to win the Silky Sullivan, but it is apt to be an altogether different matter on Saturday night. “He might have to go 13 wide with that big field,” Dollase said.
Somewhat immature, Hardboot has things yet to learn as a racehorse. Dollase might be willing to call a Derby victory a lesson learned in that process.
Dollase trains horses, typically for other trainers, so she plans to enjoy this experience to its fullest.
Before leaving for Minnesota on Friday, she recalled an old saying in the racing business.
“They always say that a trainer needs to pack two suitcases, one with luck and the other with clothes,” she said.
You have to be lucky. Dollase knows she already is.