08/23/2012 2:42PM

Hovdey: Pet bunny keeps Amani content before Pacific Classic


The question was innocent enough. Neil Drysdale was asked about the filly Amani, the Chilean champion who will be running against the boys on Sunday in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

“You know about her rabbit,” Drysdale said, lending no particular expression to the statement. His visitor bit.

“Her rabbit?”

“Yes, she has a rabbit,” said the trainer.

His visitor drew the obvious conclusion.

“You mean a pacemaker. She’s a stretch-runner. She gets help from a ‘rabbit.’ ”

“No,” Drysdale replied, one corner of his mouth betraying the hint of a smile. “A rabbit.”

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The conversation, clearly deteriorating into a bad sketch from “Monty Python,” soon moved to Amani’s stall. It was late Wednesday afternoon at Betfair Hollywood Park, just before feeding time, and Drysdale was seeing to things at the barn while his assistant, John O’Donoghue, supervised a runner down the road at Del Mar.

Amani’s stall was halfway down the far aisle, indistinguishable from the others except for the presence of a small street hockey net jutting into the shed row and positioned beneath her webbing, its mouth to the opening of the stall. Amani, a burnished, reddish bay with highly expressive ears, had her head over the webbing in anticipation of visitors. There was a bowl of water tucked in a corner of the hockey net.

“Be careful,” Drysdale warned. “She’ll pretend she’s really kind, but she will bite you.”

“Is that what the net’s for – to keep people at a safe distance?”

“No,” said Drysdale. “It’s for the rabbit. It’s the hutch.”

He peered into the stall, careful to steer Amani’s head aside.

“Now where is it? Ah, there.”

And there it was, fat and white, with upright, gray-trimmed ears nestled deep in Amani’s straw bedding and wedged against the front wall.

“She arrived with the rabbit,” Drysdale said. “Sometimes she’s quite happy, and the rabbit and her are just munching away together. Then sometimes the rabbit comes and hides in a corner of his hutch.”

Amani arrived not only with a bunny, but also the fanfare of a national hero venturing forth. During calendar 2011, spanning her Southern Hemisphere 2- and 3-year-old campaigns, Amani was the darling of Chilean racing, very much the Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra of her continent. She won her first eight races before finishing second to an outstanding colt, then buried that same colt the next time they met. With a record of 10 wins from 11 starts, she had no worlds left to conquer, so her owner and breeder, Oussama Abu-Ghazaleh, decided to pass the torch to Drysdale for a North American campaign.

Besides raising Thoroughbreds, Abu-Ghazaleh is a member of a family whose global business interests include Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., based in Florida. His previous American runner of note was Wild Spirit, winner of the 2003 Ruffian, Shuvee, and Delaware Handicap. Abu-Ghazaleh, born in 1943 in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, is a life-long horseman who oversees Fresh Del Monte’s Chilean agricultural holdings. His Thoroughbred farm, Haras Sumaya Stud, is near Santiago.

Amani won her final race in Chile on Dec. 17, 2011, taking the Classico St. Leger at 2,200 meters, or about 1 3/8 miles. Shortly afterwards it was announced she would bid farewell to the loyal fans of her native land, and if there was any doubt about where she was heading it was answered during an emotional farewell ceremony at Hipodromo Chile in Santiago when she was paraded behind matching gray ponies. The rider of one carried the Chilean flag, the other carried the stars and stripes of the USA.

That Amani would land in Drysdale’s hands should come as no surprise. His Hall of Fame r é sum é includes a fair share of South Americans, most recently the 2012 Santa Ana Stakes winner Vamo a Galupiar. In the early 1970s, during Drysdale’s final years with his mentor, Charlie Whittingham, the stable was graced by champion Cougar II, the only Chilean-bred runner in the North American Hall of Fame.

Upon Amani’s arrival, bunny in tow, Drysdale was suitably impressed.

“Very athletic, well-made, and very feisty,” Drysdale replied. “We took it slowly after she arrived, letting her get used to things, but she actually hasn’t missed a beat.”

Neither did the trainer blink at the presence of her furry stable companion, which in any given barn can be a goat, a chicken, a boombox, or a tetherball to soothe a fretful Thoroughbred. Beyond his work with Hall of Famers A.P. Indy, Bold n’ Determined and Princess Rooney, Drysdale has earned an enviable reputation for nursing the best from talented crackpots such as Labeeb, a brilliant but temperamental miler, and Storming Home, whose brain fade cost him the 2003 Arlington Million and nearly killed Gary Stevens. Drysdale, in the role the understanding parent, will describe such malefactors as simply “thinkers.”

“There’s a lot going on there,” Drysdale said of Amani. “She’s not one to fall asleep in the back of the stall. She likes to know what’s going on.”

How important is the rabbit? According to legend – and there’s no reason not to believe it – Amani lost her only race because, earlier in the day, a dog got loose and chased her bunny out of the stall. This disturbed her so badly that she sprung a shoe, then injured the blacksmith who was called in for the repair. A flustered, distracted Amani still battled the winner in the stretch and finished a good second in what was the equivalent of the middle leg of the Chilean Triple Crown.

Amani made her first U.S. start in the Clement Hirsch at 1 1/16 miles on the main track Aug. 4. It was a tall order, facing top company, and she finished a fast-closing third to Include Me Out and Star Billing.

“She stumbled at the break the other day, which accounts for her being so far back early,” Drysdale noted. “That’s not the way she normally runs. If you look at her races she can make an early move and then finish. The short stretch at Del Mar is a concern, but I think going a mile and a quarter she’ll be able to get into the race a lot easier.”

Amani is among only a handful of proven 10-furlong horses in the Classic, which will be topped in the betting by Hollywood Gold Cup winners Game On Dude and Rail Trip and two-time Pacific Classic winner Richard’s Kid.

“It’s a bit of a challenge,” Drysdale conceded as he headed back to his office. “But she needs a distance of ground to do her best, and there’s not much around on the main track at a mile and a quarter. Remember she’s still quite young. Whatever she does let’s hope it’s the beginning of a good run here.”

Back at the stall, Amani was bobbing her head. Drysdale noticed.

“She’s saying ‘what about a carrot?’ ” said the trainer, which made sense, although he didn’t say who the carrot was for.