11/19/2010 1:03PM

Spot the Diplomat finds second career soothing autistic children

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On a three-acre patch of Texas ranchland, just south of the city of Austin, a 6-year-old son of Worldly Manner named Spot the Diplomat has found a home with the family of Grant and Greta Hays.

Funny where horses end up. Funny what they end up doing.

Spot the Diplomat was a real racehorse. He won three of his first four starts, including two small stakes at Del Mar, finished third in the 2006 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, and was favored in the California Cup Juvenile.

Over the following four seasons, Spot the Diplomat appeared in 35 more races, drifting up and down the class ladder for six different sets of owners and trainers until, last January, he was claimed for $20,000 by the Summit Racing partnership and turned over to Jeff Mullins. Spot the Diplomat won at first asking for Summit in March and followed that with a third in April, but he cracked a sesamoid in the process. His days as a racehorse were over.

MORE BY JAY HOVDEY: Zenyatta a vivid image amid confusion

Around the same time, Grant Hays, a local radio sound engineer, and his son Jack made a pilgrimage to the John Shirreffs stable at Hollywood Park to visit Zenyatta. They were living in Long Beach at the time, so the journey was not far, and for Zenyatta, it was not an unusual event. She does not get as much traffic as Lourdes, say, or the Grand Canyon. But over the past three years there have been hundreds upon hundreds of fans who simply want to drop by and enjoy the view, and, if possible, lay hands upon the remarkable beast.

Shirreffs let Jack Hays get very close and personal, and Zenyatta, as usual, submitted without fuss. With his father nervously observing and Shirreffs as confident guide, Jack poked and prodded the big mare, making the kind of noises associated with a combination of wondrous discovery and delight.

Jack Hays was 5 at the time. He turned 6 on the Fourth of July. He was born in Oregon, but his roots trace to Texas, and to the legacy of his great-great-great grandfather, John Coffee Hays, the legendary Texas Ranger whose mounted likeness commands the plaza in front of the Hays County Courthouse. Hays was hailed across the Texas Republic as Captain Jack, but to the Commanches he battled he was referred to by the tribal honorific “Bravo Too Much.”

At the time he met Zenyatta, young Jack Hays already had been diagnosed with a form of autism. The outward signs include a persistent restlessness, lack of eye contact, little or no verbal communication, and an almost violent resistance to intimate physical approach. Imagine for a moment not being able to caress your child, not having that child want to cuddle in the crook of your arm, lean his head against your chest, fall softly to sleep.

Is it any wonder then, that the parents of autistic children curse whatever fates are at hand, beating their arms against the sky. Grant and Greta Hays, already dealing with Jack’s disorder, soon discovered their second son, Dylan, was exhibiting similar autistic behaviors.

“The divorce rate is something like 85 percent among autistic parents,” Grant Hays noted. “We walked on coals of fire for a long time.”

Neither did they take no for an answer. After watching Jack with Zenyatta and other horses, on several visits to the Shirreffs barn, Grant Hays reached out to horse trainer and author Rupert Isaacson, who has told the story of his autistic son in the book and documentary “Horse Boy.” Inspired by the tale of young Jack and Zenyatta, Isaacson invited the Hayses to join another family with an autistic child for a horse camp in the East Texas hill country.

“They had horses, a trampoline, and a river to play in,” Hays said. “Rupert would have the kids riding three hours a day, and the transformation was miraculous. It was becoming clear to us that such a setting was where our boys needed to be.”

Clear as crystal, especially on the day Jack was bouncing on Rupert Isaacson’s trampoline, when his father heard him say, “Be!”

“Be, Jack, yeah, ‘Be!’” his father replied.

“Be hap-pee!” said Jack.

“Yes, Jack, let’s be happy.”

“Be happy Daddy!”

The epiphany complete, Grant and Greta Hays moved their family to the land of his ancestors. Not long after that, Spot the Diplomat followed. With the noted Southern California handicapper and Summit Racing manager Bob Ike riding point, Spot the Diplomat got the rehab he needed in the wake of his injury, and then was delivered to the freshly settled Hays family at their spread, about 30 miles south of Austin.

“He’s totally okay for walking, and slow trots with the boys riding him,” Hays said. “Dylan runs under his belly and behind his back legs. Jack yanks on his tail, things that would make you cringe in fear. But Spot doesn’t flinch. They have really good energy around Spot. You start to tune into that, and I don’t see the way they are as negative any more. They can be productive, and we can tap into their gifts.

“Spot’s brought a lot of peace to our world,” Hays went on. “Just being around him, when I’m under stress, or I’m frustrated with autism, or life in general, I just hang out with Spot and it seems to just go away, just giving him a hug, talking to him. This whole experience has brought us over the mountain. I know we’re a rarity, but it’s made us better people. We’re not sad anymore.”

And what they learned, they plan to share.

“What we discovered, after all the tests and all the doctors, is that nature is the best cure for these children, and horses can be a big part of that,” Hays said.

“Thoroughbreds are notorious for being extremely difficult, for being hypersensitive, unpredictable, very hard to understand,” Hays added. “That is exactly how autistic kids are. And when you bring them together, you get this harmonic. This peace. I think there’s a real future for Thoroughbreds and autistic children. I’d like to adopt more, create a program for other autistic families.”

Be happy Daddy. Bravo too much.