Updated on 03/26/2013 4:36PM

Dubai World Cup: Douglas back at racetrack for first time since being injured

Shigeki Kikkawa
The Panamanian import Private Zone has taken former jockey Rene Douglas and Good Friends Stable all the way to the Dubai Golden Shaheen.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The last time Rene Douglas went to the races was May 23, 2009, and he left Arlington Park that day in an ambulance. The horse Douglas rode in his last race as a jockey, Born to Be, got into trouble at the end of the far turn, staggering and going down at the quarter pole, and when Born to Be fell, she landed on Douglas. Among his many injuries was one jockeys particularly dread: damage to the spinal cord.

Douglas endured awful physical pain, going through surgeries and intensive rehab, and as the incident drifted into the past, and feeling failed to return to his legs, deep mental anguish set in, too. Douglas left Chicago, where he had become the perennial leading rider at Arlington, and took up a reclusive existence with his wife and three sons in Florida.

Rene Douglas won a Breeders’ Cup race and the 1996 Belmont Stakes with Editor’s Note. Through the mid-2000s he had settled in as a top 30 rider in North America. But after the spill, he excised the sport from his life. Douglas stopped watching races. He wanted no part of the track.

[DUBAI WORLD CUP: Complete DRF coverage, live video from Meydan]

On Tuesday this week, Douglas, 46, and his wife, Natalia, got on a plane in Miami. They flew to New York, transferred planes, and then traveled halfway around the globe to Dubai. A car picked them up at the airport and shuttled them to the Meydan Hotel, a hotel connected to and overlooking palatial Meydan Racecourse. For the first time in four years, Rene Douglas was at the track again.

Douglas still cannot walk, but for the last couple years he has been mending his soul, making peace with racing. In 2010, he and a group of Chicagoans, men who stood by his side in the months after his wreck, purchased a horse from Panama, a horse named Golden Moka that Douglas, a Panamanian, discovered and helped bring to the United States. Now the group, called Good Friends Stable, has a second Panamanian import, Private Zone, who has taken them all the way to the Dubai Golden Shaheen. The race is worth $2 million. Douglas wants to see it in person.

Douglas sounds more like his old self than any time since his injury. He curses and cracks jokes. He has pored over the competition in the Golden Shaheen, a six-furlong race on Meydan’s all-weather track. He says the local Godolphin runner, Mental, is the one to beat. Krypton Factor, last year’s Shaheen winner, isn’t the same this season. Trinniberg, the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, might be a couple works short of his best, Douglas says, his voice no longer detached, freighted with sadness and anger.

“I do feel better,” Douglas said. “I don’t know if it’s this horse or what, but I’m feeling the confidence now.”

There is more to this story than a man fighting demons. What Douglas has done, coming up with this pair of Panamanians, is remarkable. Think about it: How often does one see any horse in the United States or Canada with running lines from Panama, where racing pays a pittance and has zero stature on an international stage? And from this fallow region, the only two horses Douglas has picked out for his Good Friends have turned out to be stakes horses.

Golden Moka was pretty good. In his first start for Good Friends, he won the $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes, a race for Canadian-breds at Fort Erie. That win alone made Golden Moka a successful buy, which was fortunate, for he failed to progress any further, lost his next seven starts, and died in a training accident two winters ago.

Private Zone, also a Canadian-bred, has lost all seven of his starts for Good Friends, but he is better than Golden Moka. Private Zone’s last six races have come in six-figure stakes: He finished third in the first of that series, the $300,000 Gallant Bob last fall, and has since been second four times in a row, the last three in graded-stakes competition. Private Zone has excellent early speed, proven form on a synthetic track, and a legitimate chance to win the Golden Shaheen. All this comes despite the fact that the horse is, to borrow Douglas’s word, crazy.

Allowance race, April 8, 2012.

Private Zone, purchased as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale for $15,000, made nine starts in Panama, where he was trained by Douglas’s brother Rogelio Douglas. He won a maiden race by 12 lengths and a Panamanian Grade 1 in April 2012, but other races turned out much worse. In an allowance race April 8, 2012, Private Zone made a sharp left turn shortly after leaving the gate and ran through an inner rail. On April 29, leading in his only Panamanian start around two turns, he suddenly slowed to a crawl midway through the race as the entire field whizzed past.

Grade 1 Trabajador, April 29, 2012.

In his last race in Panama, Private Zone acted up again not long after the start: His rider was knocked out of the irons and rode the rest of the race with his legs dangling around Private Zone’s barrel. The horse finished first by a length anyway.

Since his brother trained Private Zone, Douglas knew the horse’s history.

“They couldn’t even put a tongue tie on him,” Douglas said. “He’s just a horse that never was taught right, and he developed bad habits. When you got a baby like that, you’ve got to give him time. The riders there, they only get paid a couple dollars, and sometimes they really just don’t care. They couldn’t even work the horse: He was running without working, without even going to the track. They tried everything and they couldn’t get him right.”

Private Zone allowance win, May 20, 2012.

What Douglas saw in Private Zone was an immense talent that could blossom under the right conditions. What the Good Friends partners saw when Douglas sent them video of Private Zone’s races was a lunatic.

“I had to beg my group to get in,” said Douglas. “I know they thought I was crazy. I said, ‘Listen, I know what I’m talking about. You’re going to be sorry if you don’t get in on this horse.’ The only one that backed me up was Big Dave.”

That would be Dave Flanzbaum, whose name dropped into national racing circles when he was edged by a whisker in the 2012 Daily Racing Form /NTRA National Handicapping Tournament. Flanzbaum is one of five Chicagoans in the ownership group, along with Hilton Gordon, Joe Casciato, Larry Slavin, and Denis Savard, a National Hockey League Hall of Famer. All except Flanzbaum, who has business obligations, arrived Tuesday in Dubai.

Private Zone trained without incident Tuesday morning, nor has he pulled any of his tricks during his races in the United States, but he remains a work in progress.

“It’s been a real process with him,” said trainer Doug O’Neill. “He’s a horse that sometimes likes to slam on the brakes. That’s his biggest thing. We started training him in company all the time, and he’d try it a little bit, but not so much with another horse. Most mornings now he’ll gallop around there by himself and be okay. Rene has been a huge part of this horse’s progression.”

Douglas himself has been involved in tinkering with the blinkers Private Zone wears, a piece of equipment that sits at the core of Private Zone’s chances of ending his string of four straight second-place finishes. In all those losses, Private Zone held the lead at the top of the stretch, and in his last three races, he responded belatedly when challenged late by the eventual winner. Private Zone’s blinkers have been cut from a full cup in Panama to something closer to a half cup, but they might still be preventing him from seeing and sensing a challenger in time to respond. On the other hand, the idea of making an equipment change with a horse prone to radical behavior isn’t an appealing option, either.

That is the technical aspect of Private Zone’s trip to Dubai, and the Douglas camp will be rooting for everything to fall into place in the Golden Shaheen. The fact that Douglas has come along for the ride this time, that’s already a victory of some sort.

“For my first time back at the track,” Douglas said, “I think I picked the right place. I told these guys that if this horse wins, maybe that will also be the first time I get out of this wheelchair. I told them they might have to carry me on their shoulders to the winner’s circle.”