08/15/2014 1:59PM

Hovdey: Eurton hoping for a little karma

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Grade 2 winner Madame Cactus takes on two Grade 1 winners in the Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo.

In a world suddenly without Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, reeling from violent strife at home and abroad, it would be swell to think all that grim karma could lighten up, reach down, and give the Pete Eurton stable a little nudge in the Rancho Bernardo on Sunday.

Eurton will saddle Madame Cactus for owners Marc and Vinka Ferrell in the 6 1/2-furlong Rancho Bernardo, a race worth $150,000 and a Grade 3 trinket that belies the quality of the field. Grade 1 winners Judy the Beauty and Fashion Plate will be lining up against defending champ Reneesgotzip, while Madame Cactus brings a Grade 2 credential to the party, courtesy of her victory last year in the Raven Run at Keeneland.

“That was my first winner at Keeneland,” Eurton said Friday morning as he watched Madame Cactus circle the tow ring. “What a kick that was. Going out onto the grass to get your picture taken – I wasn’t expecting that. It’s a very big deal.”

As it turned out, Eurton’s moment in the Raven Run spotlight was merely a rehearsal for the biggest show of all. Six months later, he was back in Lexington, Ky., with the 3-year-old Dance With Fate to run in Keeneland’s hallmark event, the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes. Displaying an air of cool professionalism in the face of the large, scrambling field, Dance With Fate won by 1 3/4 lengths, punching his ticket to the Kentucky Derby in the process.

After finishing sixth in the Derby, Dance With Fate got a freshening before going back to work with a summer and fall campaign in mind. On the morning of July 24, Eurton sent the colt out for a routine gallop and took up his usual place at the rail, not far from his barn on Del Mar’s clubhouse turn.

“When you’re standing there waiting there for your horse to come around, and you hear the siren go off, and you don’t see your horse coming, you just know it’s got to be yours – unless maybe he was pulled up to get out of the way of something else,” Eurton said. “Then riders were coming around telling me, ‘It’s your horse.’ ”

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In a freakish moment apparently triggered by a bridle malfunction, Dance With Fate spooked, then bolted to the outside on the far turn of the main track and got a hind foot caught between the bottom of the canvas-covered chain-link fence and the wooden baseboard. In his panic, the colt twisted the leg, severely fracturing the hock, and fell, pinning exercise rider Joe Duran beneath him.

Duran was hospitalized with possible leg and spinal injuries, but Dance With Fate could not be saved. Just like that, Eurton had lost the best horse he’d ever trained, the kind of horse who carries his people to places like the Blue Grass, the Kentucky Derby ... the Breeders’ Cup.

“It will take time to get over something like that,” Eurton said. “Everybody is still depressed about it, but it’s getting a little better. And I understand Joe is up and walking now and is supposed to get out of the hospital any day.”

Just then, Madame Cactus made another turn in front of her trainer, presenting a chance to change the subject. The daughter of Cactus Ridge, resplendent in her summer chestnut coat, was pulled to a halt by David Ochoa, the barn’s big man, as Eurton approached.

“She’s not tiny, but she’s just so wide,” Eurton said. “She probably goes about 1,150 pounds, although standing next to David, any horse is going to look small.”

Madame Cactus will need to be at her best to contend with Judy the Beauty, who came within a half-length of upsetting Groupie Doll in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, and Reneesgotzip, who nearly knocked off Mizdirection in the BC Turf Sprint the following day. Fashion Plate, the winner of the Santa Anita Oaks, will be trying to erase the taste of disappointing races in the Kentucky Oaks and the Acorn.

After making her debut at Del Mar at age 2 and winning a maiden race at Santa Anita in her second start for Eurton, Madame Cactus was transferred to the Steve Asmussen stable for a pair of stakes opportunities at Delta Downs. She won one, lost the other, then went to the sidelines for the first half of her 3-year-old season. When she resurfaced at Del Mar for the 2013 running of the CERF Stakes, she was back in the Eurton barn.

“I was disappointed when I lost her, but my dad always taught me never to burn bridges because all the world’s a circle,” Eurton said.

And the luck evens out if you stay in the game long enough. Madame Cactus drew into the Raven Run from the also-eligible list and popped at odds of 11-1. A subsequent flop in the La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita prompted Eurton to send her to the farm, and now she is making her debut as a mature 4-year-old in the Rancho Bernardo, just 24 days after the barn hit bottom with the death of Dance With Fate. Then again, a filly like Madame Cactus encourages even the darkest of spirits to concede that hope might spring eternal.

“If she runs big, I hope we can start thinking Breeders’ Cup with her,” Eurton said.