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Updated on 09/15/2011 1:38PM
Look out, Spa, new gun's coming
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Forty-one-year-old Ronny Werner's gray T-shirt was soaked through with sweat, front and back. By 8 a.m., the Chicago summer sun was high in the sky, and the humidity was rising quickly. Felt almost like home: Granbury, Texas.
Werner, his face tanned, squinted from beneath a cowboy hat outside his barn at Arlington earlier this week. He wore a huge gleaming belt buckle - won in rodeo competition - denim jeans, and cowboy boots. With thick forearms and a sturdy trunk, Werner weighs about 170 pounds, but that doesn't keep him from galloping the horses he trains whenever he can. "I still ride light," he said.
Is Saratoga ready for this?
It had better be. Werner is headed there next week, and if he can do in New York what he did in Kentucky, Saratoga Springs may go cowboy by September.
Werner and his primary owner, Tom Durant, switched over from Quarter Horse racing only four years ago, and they branched out from Texas this year with amazing success. Werner and Durant won with five of the seven horses they started at Keeneland this spring, four of them 2-year-olds, and all of them racing for the first time.
City Street set a Keeneland track record, then won the Three Chimneys Juvenile at Churchill. The 2-year-old Lunar Bounty ran his record to 2 for 2 July 8 when he won Churchill's Grade 2 Bashford Manor Stakes after winning his maiden race his first time out, at the Arlington oval.
Werner has held back some unraced maidens for Saratoga. Lunar Bounty also will be there, as will the tremendously talented 3-year-old Touch Tone, who could run in the Jim Dandy Stakes. Do not expect any of them to be overmatched.
Werner grew up working alongside his father breaking and galloping Quarter Horses at his family's training center near New Braunfels, Texas. He went to college, but at 21, he was training on his own.
Durant, who owns a string of car dealerships around Granbury, hooked up with Werner in the mid-1990's, just as the opening of Lone Star Park was changing the dynamics of Texas racing.
Said Werner: "We had a whole barnful at Sam Houston - Quarter Horses - and two Thoroughbreds running at Lone Star. One colt ran second, came back and broke his maiden. He dang near made that month what the whole barn of Quarter Horses made."
Durant, who got into horse racing in the mid-1980's, started claiming Thoroughbreds, but after a good first year the roof fell in the next. So he began buying yearlings and 2-year-olds at public auction, at first keeping purchases between $20,000 to $50,000, but soon upgrading. Touch Tone cost $230,000 as a 2-year-old, City Street $250,000 as a yearling.
Despite his relative lack of experience, Durant has a good eye for a horse, according to Werner, and he selects many purchases himself. Durant gets help from Werner and others around the country, including Hoby Kight, who works out of Ocala, Fla., and found Touch Tone for Durant.
"I didn't really know what to look for at first," Durant said. "But I wanted to be involved. As the price tags went up, I decided I needed to make the calls myself."
With training, Durant leaves the calls to Werner. It is not hard to see why.
Werner's young horses run like seasoned pros. They break sharply from the gate, change leads on cue, aren't intimidated by the stress of a race, and respond professionally to the commands of their riders. No wonder Werner has been phenomenal with first-time starters.
"I'm a firm believer in developing a horse right from the start," said Werner, who added: "I'm in no hurry to get these horses to the racetrack."
Jack Bruner, an old friend, breaks Werner's stock at Squaw Creek Downs, the former Trinity Meadows Racetrack. He knows exactly what Werner wants. "Jack's a huge asset," Werner said.
The young horses are equipped with stock saddles, not flat saddles, and often practice in pasture, not on the track. They learn to turn properly, cutting out neat figure eights, and to respond to the pull of the bit. Werner models breaking and training a Thoroughbred on the same lessons he learned as a child and through his rodeo experience. Rodeo horses are generally better educated than racehorses. They learn more commands and more complex tasks, and their level of responsiveness is more refined.
Werner's horses continue their education at the racetrack. "It doesn't end once they're broke," he said. "A horse can pick up a bad habit in one or two days."
And bad habits proliferate on the track, Werner said. "Gallop help is so watered-down on the track," he said. "Young people go from grooming a horse right to galloping. They know absolutely nothing. The horse is taking them around there. They're not taking the horse around there."
Werner said he won't employ anything less than skilled riders, and he still gallops as much as he can. When a horse nears a race, Werner will gallop it to get a fix on the animal's condition. "I can watch and watch, but when I get up on one I can tell in three strides what's going on," he said.
Last Monday, Werner took Touch Tone out for a spin and reported that the horse felt as good as ever. Touch Tone suffered from white line disease as a 2-year-old, a condition that ate away his hoof and necessitated a long rest. The foot is fine now, and a shin that sometimes bothers the colt is cool.
Touch Tone is a beautiful horse: long, well-proportioned, rippling with muscles, and unusually poised. When he debuted at Keeneland, he embodied everything Werner strives for. Caught behind horses and trapped along the rail for much of the race, he never fretted. Jockey Robby Albarado found a hole in the stretch, and Touch Tone shot through to win going away. Beaten only in the Grade 2 Riva Ridge, he won a stakes in his second start and two weeks ago easily won the Iowa Derby, his first two-turn race.
Werner, the perfectionist, worries that Touch Tone still doesn't run the first turn of a route race flawlessly. "He can't afford to make a mistake with those horses in the Jim Dandy," he said. And so he is mulling another start against lesser company in the West Virginia Derby. Durant seems more inclined to test the horse with top 3-year-olds at Saratoga.
Durant said he encourages the growth of Werner's career. And Werner is ready for more. But life is getting trickier. Werner has been married for 20 years and has a pair of teenage sons in Granbury. He doesn't see them as often as he would prefer, and his hands-on approach to training will be tested by the further expansion of his stable.
Next stop will be Saratoga. "I'm getting to see places I've never been before," Werner said. And showing the locals a new trick or two while he's there.
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