10/30/2017 3:00PM

Happy Alter back on big-race day

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Courtesy of Happy Alter
Happy Alter often speaks of his time with former boxing great Muhammad Ali.

DEL MAR, Calif. – Happy Alter is back on the big stage, although it can be argued he never left. Alter is a roving sideshow of flamboyance and laughter, an oversized personality who walks into a room in midsentence and never lets his audience catch a deep breath.

It was in 1987 that Alter first drew notice on the national racing scene as the trainer of No More Flowers, who finished 15th in the Kentucky Derby. A Washington Post article from Derby week that year described Alter sunning shirtless on the hood of his Lincoln on the Churchill Downs backside, defying convention while endearing himself to anyone willing to lend an ear and a smile.

Three decades later, Alter has his rented white Mercedes-Benz parked just outside the stall of Curlin’s Approval on the backstretch at Del Mar, where on Saturday the 4-year-old filly will carry his colors in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. Alter is expecting Curlin’s Approval to run a big race despite her long odds.

“She’s better than she showed at Saratoga,” said Alter, referring to a sixth-place finish in the Aug. 26 Ballerina, a Grade 1 race in which Curlin’s Approval was unable to recover from a troubled start as the second wagering choice. “Look here at this video.”

Alter whips out his phone and shows a close-up of how Curlin’s Approval was jostled about by an assistant starter just prior to the gate’s opening. “I mean, I don’t want to blame anybody, but, you know,” he said.

Alter bred Curlin’s Approval and raced her with Marty Wolfson listed as trainer during the first 13 months of her career, when she totaled six wins from 11 starts. In that time she recorded three graded victories at her home track of Gulfstream Park in Florida, capped by a Win and You’re In to the Breeders’ Cup in the Grade 2 Princess Rooney in July. Alter, who was a hands-on owner in the care and training of his filly to that point, decided after the Rooney to put his name on the program for her subsequent starts, officially reviving a training career that was dormant for more than a decade.

Perhaps no one in human history is more aptly named than Happy Eddie Alter (his real name, he insists). His father, Harry Alter, died when Happy was just 10; his mother, Sylvia, is 102 and living in Fort Lauderdale. He grew up on Miami Beach “not wanting for anything” as his mother made “a real nice living” from the gift shop she owned in the famed Fontainebleau Hotel.

As a student at the University of Miami, he had a chance meeting with Muhammad Ali at a Miami Beach gym, and a lifelong friendship was struck. A conversation of any length with Alter invariably involves an Ali story, and Alter has numerous photos on his smartphone to document their times together. He even sends his horses out inordinately late every morning partly because Ali taught him to “train under the conditions you’ll perform. They run in the afternoon, don’t they?”

In his early 20s, while teaching school “to show my mom my degree in child psychology wasn’t wasted,” Alter became a partner in Bob’s Barricades, which has become the premier privately owned traffic-control company in the U.S. as a provider of orange traffic cones and a wide variety of other products and services. After quitting teaching, he became immersed in the racing game, working under legendary trainers Frank Merrill Jr. and Horatio Luro before starting his own stable in 1980.

While breeding many of his own horses and racing mostly in his home state, Alter won 646 races as a trainer, most notably two Grade 1 events in 1991 with Jolie’s Halo for the late Arthur Appleton. Alter long has been closely affiliated with Bridlewood Farm, the Ocala, Fla., farm formerly owned by the Appleton family and managed by George Isaacs. In fact, Bridlewood, now owned by billionaire John Malone, is an ownership partner in Curlin’s Approval.

Alter quit training in 2006, and although he maintained interests as a breeder and owner, he went largely unseen by the racing public while focusing on Bob’s Barricades. He still is heavily involved in his primary business.

“After training in the morning, I’m on conference calls every day or going through bids or conducting interviews or something,” he said.

Clearly, there is something deeper to Alter than the Rolls-Royce he drives back home, the Panama hats, the sometimes garish attire and flair for the outlandish, the joking around and name-dropping and endless banter. Alter is the father of four grown daughters, two of whom will be at Del Mar for the race Saturday, and he claims a soft spot for kids and animals. He also can train a Thoroughbred, so it’s probably a widely shared sentiment that his return to a major racing event is overdue and appreciated.

“Life is short and we have to enjoy it,” Alter said. “I’ve been blessed with my children and my family and so much more. Horse racing is deemed the sport of kings, but it’s really the sport of anyone that loves horses.”