07/24/2014 2:09PM

Hovdey: Grief and thanks hover over shed rows


The Doug O’Neill stable did not want to lose its Pennsylvania Derby winner Handsome Mike, but a mix-up put him in the sales ring at Del Mar last Sunday night with a price on his head before the people in charge figured it out.

Peter Miller did not want to lose Stealth Drone, the barn’s first-time starter in the first race Wednesday at Del Mar, and thought an $80,000 claiming price would be enough to discourage takers. It did not, and now Stealth Drone lives with Handsome Mike in the O’Neill shedrow.

As small dramas played out on an attractive stage, claiming rivalries and auction gaffes give the lazy summer at Del Mar a welcome dash of spice. Miller and O’Neill ended business on Wednesday tied atop the Del Mar standings with four wins each, boding well for a contentious trainers’ race that will be joined at some point by the muscle-bound barns of John Sadler, Bob Baffert, Jerry Hollendorfer, and Phil D’Amato.

Still, it’s Del Mar, and everyone is having way too much fun to take things seriously enough. Then comes a morning like Thursday, when the ultimate cost of raising, buying, and racing Thoroughbreds came due once again in the starkest of possible terms.

Dance With Fate, winner of the 2014 Blue Grass and aiming for Saturday’s San Diego Stakes, suffered a fatal injury to his hind leg in a freak accident that occurred during a routine gallop when a piece of tack apparently failed and his rider lost control. News of the accident ricocheted around the sprawling stable area like lightning, bringing forth a communal groan, and not only because Dance With Fate was one of the most accomplished 3-year-olds on the grounds.

His trainer, Pete Eurton, runs a medium-sized public stable with the class and accessibility that has made him both well liked and well respected. At 56, Eurton has had his share of stakes winners, but Dance With Fate was on his way to being the best he’d ever trained, and the Blue Grass marked the best race Eurton had ever won.

“I feel so bad for the guy,” Miller said later Thursday. “I was at the barn when it happened and saw them take the horse off in the ambulance. I’ve been there, and it’s the worst feeling in the world. There’s no good way to deliver that kind of news.”

Dance With Fate raced for the partnership of Sharon Alesia, Joseph Ciaglia, and the Bran Jam Stable of Michael Mellen.

“You’ve just got to shoot from the heart,” O’Neill said. “Your veteran owners will be saddened and disappointed, but they feel your pain. Every owner will tell their tax guy it’s a business first, then secondly it’s the love of the animal. But in this scenario the love of the animal goes right past everything else.”

When a good horse like Dance With Fate goes down like this, for no apparent reason other than blind, stupid luck, trainers everywhere walk up to the stall of a stable star and just stare, wishing away the clouds of evil fortune. They know, if they are honest, that they’re lucky to have such horses in their care.

In Miller’s case, he looks forward to every day Unbridled Command wakes up ready to roll. The well-traveled 5-year-old, once the winner of the Hollywood Derby, has landed in Miller’s barn after frustrating sojourns abroad and is on his way back now from a soft-tissue injury. His fifth-place finish in the Eddie Read Stakes last weekend did nothing to discourage the trainer.

“Beaten five lengths in a fast time,” Miller noted. “I’ve got to think that puts him right where he needs to be for the Del Mar Handicap later in the meet.”

O’Neill’s best runner was dozing in a corner of his stall Thursday morning when Dance With Fate was injured. Goldencents, winner of the 2013 Santa Anita Derby and Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, has not appeared in public since giving Palace Malice all he could handle in the Metropolitan Mile on Belmont Stakes Day, but on Sunday it will be back to work in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at 6 furlongs, in which he finished second last year to subsequent sprint champion Points Offthebench.

“He’s a man now and he knows it,” said Leandro Mora, O’Neill’s assistant. “I still can’t believe he lost in New York. This is his last season to race, so hopefully he will get a chance to show everyone what he can do at least a few more times.”

As Mora headed into the barn to prepare Goldencents for a three-furlong Crosby blowout, O’Neill let his thoughts stray once more to Dance With Fate.

“I saw Pete Eurton a couple times this morning after it happened,” O’Neill said. “He was kind of teary-eyed, which is understandable, and I could tell he was wanting to talk with somebody. But what can you say?”

Nothing, or at least nothing that makes a difference. I once asked trainer Len Dorfman, long retired now, how long it took him to get over the death of a horse to whom the barn had become emotionally attached, some 30 years before. Dorfman’s reply:

“I’ll let you know when I do.”