07/15/2014 2:50PM

Hovdey: Heap hoping to get Del Mar off on a good foot


How tough is it to get pumped for Del Mar? Not very. Just find a place to stand in the sun, close your eyes, and wait for a cool breeze to blow in from the coast. Any coast. Then imagine the sound of Trevor Denman, the aroma of fresh kettle corn, and the taste of an overpriced Delmargarita. See? You’re already there.

If a racing fan can’t enjoy Del Mar, there is no hope for the poor schmo. He might as well play jai alai. Of all the benign locales where major Thoroughbred racing is conducted, none is more benigner than Del Mar. The good news is that 36 days of sport begins there Thursday. End of commercial.

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The hard part is always between the rails, where horses and jockeys lay their lives on the line for the pleasure of the assembled sun-drenched multitude. On opening day five years ago, defending local champ Rafael Bejarano got as far as the top of the stretch in the third race before his mount broke a leg and fell. A trailing horse kicked Bejarano in the face, resulting in fractures that required six hours of surgery and 10 titanium plates to repair. He returned to riding in 37 days.

Bejarano was hurt again last May, this time fracturing a collarbone and a rib. Healthy ribs and clavicles are pretty much a necessity for effective horsebacking, which is why it took almost two months for Bejarano to get a doctor’s okay to get back in the saddle. In Thursday’s first race, a one-mile event with the gate right in front of the crowd, that will be Rafael Bejarano aboard the No. 10 horse, Fit to Rule, answering starter’s orders for the first time since May. Give the man a hand.

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It must be part of the deal because the sentiment is not reserved for jockeys alone. Anyone who throws a leg over a horse at a racetrack every day places himself in harm’s way.

Just ask Blake Heap, 57, who was for many years the best friend a horse and rider could have as one of the outriders patrolling the track both morning and afternoon. Heap also trained a small string and was getting his share of attention handling the California-based runners of the growing Wesley Ward stable.

Then one morning at Santa Anita – Jan. 30, 2011, to be exact – Heap went after a loose horse running wild on a crowded main track. Just as he got hold of the dangling reins, his pony collided with the loose horse and fell, and in the ensuing pileup, Heap suffered a catalog of injuries that ran from his face to his ankle. There were 17 fractures in all, and a reconstructed shoulder in the bargain, all part of the job of trying to keep others from a similar fate.

Three and a half years later, the memories of the accident are as vivid as the lingering twinges of pain.

“I’m doing okay,” the ever-positive Heap said this week at his Del Mar barn in the far western reaches of the backstretch. “I mean, I’ll never feel the same. But you can’t lay around. You’ve got to get up and keep going.”

There is nothing like a fast, young horse to get a man up and keep him going, which is why Heap floats whenever he’s around the 2-year-old filly Lost Bus, a California-bred daughter of Bring the Heat (by In Excess) who races for her breeders, Ward and John R. Haagsma.

Lost Bus has raced only once, and only then at 4 1/2 furlongs. But as they say, it was the way she did it that has Heap and her people anxious to see more.

They will get their chance Friday, when Lost Bus runs in the $100,000 California Thoroughbred Breeders Association Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs, with Victor Espinoza on board. Right now, though, Lost Bus – a tall, dark bay with three socks, a blaze, and an old scrape on her knee from a youthful encounter with a fence – was getting a bath after a gallop.

“Leading her over before her race, I heard someone say, ‘How are those itty-bitty horses gonna run with this thing?’ ” Heap said with a grin.

Size matters, especially with 2-year-olds, when those ahead of the growth curve have a natural advantage. If they can combine size with a smooth and easy way of going, like Lost Bus, the sky could be the limit.

Heap’s bar is pretty high when it comes to quality on the hoof. He came out of Arizona in the mid-1980s with a gelding named Zany Tactics, a son of the turf stayer Zanthe who had his way with Del Mar’s sprinters during the summer of 1986, then set a world record for six furlongs the following year.

“That summer is when I met Charlie Whittingham,” Heap said. “I didn’t dare talk to him or approach him. Zany beat Charlie’s horse Bolder Than Bold in the Turf Express at Hollywood and then the Crosby and the O’Brien down here. One morning, I was walking him around the barn when Charlie comes up.

‘Hey, son,’ he says, ‘could you bring that horse over here so I can see his face. I’m tired of looking at his ass.’

“I don’t know if this filly could turn out to be another Zany Tactics,” Heap added. “Not many like him. But it’s going to be fun finding out.”