06/02/2005 11:00PM

A trainer brings it all back home

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - It's hard to imagine that a trainer who saddled a Kentucky Derby winner would be happy working as an assistant trainer at Hastings. Nevertheless, David C. Cross Jr., who saddled the 1983 Kentucky Derby winner, Sunny's Halo, seems to be perfectly content in his behind-the-scenes role in Terry Jordan's barn.

"It's going well," said Cross. "Terry became very busy with his business and personal life, and he asked me if I would come out and give him a hand this winter. I'm glad I came."

Jordan, who is a prominent trainer at Hastings, has known Cross for close to 50 years.

"I was there to help him with Sunny's Halo, so it's only fair that he's here to give me a hand with First Gold Bar," Jordan joked, referring to a $5,000 claiming horse he trains. "Seriously, though, of course it's great to have someone in your barn with his kind of experience. He's a tremendous horsemen, but really, the reason he's here is that we've been good friends for over 40 years and we're having a good time working together again."

Cross, 69, was born in Vancouver and actually began his horse racing career at Hastings. He started as a hotwalker in the late 1940's, rode at the now-defunct Lansdowne racetrack in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond in 1951, and took out his trainer's license in 1957. He saddled his first winner at Longacres that year and soon after moved east.

"I had a nice horse, Emperic, that I took to Woodbine, and also a couple of horses for George Norgen, who raced under Amcan Stables," said Cross. "We had some success and then I moved to New England where I was based for about 10 years."

When he moved back to Canada, Cross hooked up with David "Pud" Foster. They won many stakes together and Foster subsequently bred and raced Sunny's Halo.

"It's a pretty amazing story," said Cross. "We almost sold his dam, Mostly Sunny. In fact, she was on a van headed to Detroit when I started thinking of what a hard-trying horse she was. I hopped in my car, caught up to the van, pulled it over, took her off and brought her back to Woodbine.

"Mostly Sunny was also the only broodmare Mr. Foster had. Imagine that, he breeds one mare and she produces a Kentucky Derby winner."

Cross has trained quite a few genuine horses in his career, including Classic Cat, who finished third in the 1998 Preakness. Classic Cat also won the Grade 2 Lexington as well as the Ohio and Remington Park Derbies. In his last race for Cross, Classic Cat finished second as the 4-5 favorite in the Super Derby.

"We won over $1 million dollars in just over six months with him," said Cross.

In that six-month span, Classic Cat ran at seven different tracks. All of the travel and the 365-day work schedule that is required by a top trainer began to catch up to Cross. In 1999, he amicably parted ways with Classic Cat's owner, Gary Garber, and soon after Cross decided to take a break from training.

"I'm not sure what you call it, but I guess I was just burned out," he said. "Plus I just had too much going at the time. I had a farm in Kentucky, was going through a divorce. Throw in the horses at the track, all of the travel, and you get the picture. I just wasn't enjoying it in the end."

Cross has never been afraid to take a risk, so he moved to Las Vegas, where he tried to make a living gambling. He had plenty of money at the time, but he soon found out "Vegas has a way of getting a lot of it."

It was around this time that Cross also had to deal with an illness afflicting his fiancee. In order to raise money he auctioned off his Kentucky Derby trophy.

"My fiancee had leukemia, and we had over $100,000 worth of medical bills to pay," he said. "People wanted to crucify me for it selling it, but we needed the money, and if I had to do it over again I would make the same decision. I'm not the kind of person that holds onto things anyway. Terry [Jordan] has all of my pictures of Sunny's Halo."

Several years ago, Cross decided to return to racing, but in a different capacity.

"I took a job for John Mooney as a racing official at Colonial Downs, and I enjoyed it for a while, but I started to get the itch to get back into training."

Last year Cross had a few horses in Ontario, but he couldn't get stalls at Woodbine, and he didn't like being stabled at Fort Erie. He seems to be happy at Hastings, and he is planning to put out his shingle as a public trainer next year.

"I think things are looking up here, and one thing that's nice is that you get some time off in the winter," he said. "I won't take too many horses, but one thing I'll insist on is a quality owner. After working with owners like Mr. Foster and Mr. Garber, you get kind of spoiled."

Cross is a member of the British Columbia Horse Racing Hall of Fame, and considering his record, especially with Sunny's Halo, it's surprising that he hasn't been made a member of the Canadian Hall of Fame. Cross doesn't feel slighted, but he does think that Sunny's Halo's hasn't gotten the respect he deserves.

"Other than Northern Dancer, he's the only Canadian-bred that's ever won the Kentucky Derby," he said. "I know he's in the Hall of Fame, but when I was at Woodbine last year I couldn't find one picture of him anywhere. He was also the first 3-year-old to win over $1 million dollars in a single year. I think he deserves more recognition."

So does the man who trained him.