Friday, October 26, 2012

One eye, big heart

Royal Slam, a dark bay two-year-old filly, figured the game out in a big way when romping home a seven-length winner on September 30, at Woodbine.

Royal Slam mugs for the camera
It was just her fourth career start, and the score came in a non-descript $20,000 maiden claimer -- so, what, you ask, as the rest of the racing world focuses on next week's Breeders' Cup, is so special about a gangly Ontario-bred filly?

As it turns out, she has just the one eye.

Trainer Mike Doyle doesn't waste words explaining how Royal Slam's right eye was taken.

"She lost it as a foal in her stall from a screw eye," says Doyle.

And, before I get much further, the affable conditioner suggests, "You should go speak with her groom, Donny Jones, he spends a lot of time with her."

There's a lot of banter in Doyle's barn on a breezy Thursday morning. Music blasts out of an old radio as hotwalkers make their turns with freshly exercised horses.

A backstretch worker by the name of Flowers and Berries greets me when I enter the barn and begins to pose for photos I'm not taking as I request a meeting with Royal Slam.

Nadia cares for Royal Slam's missing eye
"Ah, you want to see 'One Eye,'" he laughs, and leads me down the shed row.

Nadia Tsegai, a swing groom, is in front of 'One Eye's' stall fussing with the amply proportioned two-year-old. Despite the missing eye, Royal Slam has very feminine features and acknowledges me with the familiar equine greeting of a cocked head and double-tap of the hoof demand for treats.

Tsegai, tugging at Royal Slam's mane, laughs at the beggar's antics.

"Recently, she's been getting sharper and sharper, quite feisty," says Tsegai. "But, she's adorable."

While we talk, Tsegai pokes a finger into the dark crevice where Royal Slam's right eye once resided and the appreciative filly leans into her touch.

"She still has her eyelashes," grins Tsegai. "She doesn't mind me scratching. I'll clean it out for her because it gets dusty. She's very gentle."

There was nothing too gentle about Royal Slam's first start at Woodbine.

Debuting at odds of 51-1 in the Shady Well Stakes, Royal Slam was bumped at the break and gave the field a head start in a race won by multiple stakes winner Cryptic Message over Breeders' Cup bound Spring in the Air.

David Moran, who has partnered the filly in all four starts, is matter of fact about the performance.

"The first time I breezed her, I was so happy with her. I told Mike she was a nice filly and he took a shot with her in a stake," he starts. "But, she was badly hampered coming out of the gate."

'One Eye' shows off her 'good' side
Dropped in for $32,000 in her second start, the unlucky Royal Slam was once again bumped at the start, but this time Moran got the filly into the race in a hurry. Sitting second at the half of the six-furlong sprint, Royal Slam fought gamely to the top of the lane but faded in the stretch as Surtsey, who recently captured the Fanfreluche Stakes, opened up on the field.

Next time out, 'One Eye' was entered for a $20,000 tag and she ran well to be fourth.

Moran believes Royal Slam just needed a bit of time to come around.

"Training into the race she was a bit fresh," he says. "I think with all that and the one eye it took her a bit of time (to figure things out). But she was doing well in the morning, with one horse beside her, but in the race she was scaring herself and running a bit rank."

Doyle, who owns a piece of the horse, put a proper education into Royal Slam.

"We've done all sorts of things to give her every experience we could," says Doyle, listing a regimen of gate exercises meant to school Royal Slam. "We trained her out of the gate from the outside, the inside, and in the middle so she could get used to horses being around her. We had horses in front of her putting dirt in her face."

Most two-year-olds go through this process and Royal Slam's experience was no different - - more importantly, she enjoyed it.

"In the morning, she'll do anything," says Doyle. "Sometimes with a horse like this, you would put something over her missing eye so she doesn’t feel stuff hitting her in that area. But, I didn't do that with her because she seemed so smart about everything."

Perhaps Doyle's assistant, Brent Harris, puts it best.

"She doesn’t know that she has one eye, she thinks that's normal because she lost it at a young age," offers Harris. "We took precautions when she first got here, but we worried more about it than she did."

Entered again for $20,000, in a five-furlong maiden sprint, on September 30, the well-schooled Royal Slam was ready to roll - - even if the punters, who let her get away at odds of 7-1, weren't so certain.

"She went down to the gate very professional," recalls Moran. "She broke nice, sat behind the speed, switched out and she opened up and galloped out strong. She's quite a strong, sturdy filly. She really enjoyed herself."

Riding a one-eyed filly hasn't caused Moran much grief.

"I wouldn't know any different being on her that she had the one eye," he admits. "On the inside, she doesn't care. Switch out, she doesn’t care. She's actually pretty straight forward to ride. The first jump up on her, she puts her back up a bit as if she's going to throw a buck, and then she's a child's ride after that."


Back in Doyle's barn, Royal Slam's groom has arrived to put the filly away for the afternoon. Donny Jones looks remarkably young for a man of his experience on the racetrack.

Donny and Royal Slam
"I've been around the game 40 years," he says. "I started in Montreal at Blue Bonnets. I had a good job there, but the horses, they kind of get to you. As time goes on, there's different people on the racetrack now than there was then. But I'm happy with what I'm doing."

Jones does seem pretty happy with his work.

"I've got a nice horse like her and that's good by me," grins Jones.

Jones pulls at the filly's ears as the mischievous miss nips at him playfully.

"She's a pretty big girl for a two-year-old," says Jones, eyes widening. "But, you're my big girl aren't you?"

There's a history in Donny's family tree worthy of a book.

"My mother's father, he was from Barbados. He jumped boat in Quebec in 1892," starts Jones. "My father, he was from Halifax, and his father was a slave in Maryland. My brother did the family history and he went all over the place to find out where the family has lived."

And with a laugh, he adds, "I'm related to 500 people in Montreal, and I don't know a single one of them."

He shares a story about his maternal grandfather, who worked on the docks, that offers, with brutal honesty, how tough one had to be survive in a burgeoning new country.

"Back then they were fisherman and lumberjacks, living off the land more or less," begins Jones. "My mother told a story about a man who didn't like her father. The guy took a swing at him and my mum's father hit him in the jaw and the guy died. They put a law against him, that he couldn't fight unless he fought seven men."

It could be legend, or a family story grown over time, but Jones comes from a long line of survivors and it's fitting that he's now the caretaker of a filly who has overcome her own tragic moment.

"One thing about me, I'll never give up on a horse," says Jones. "Never."

Jones, who groomed horses for the late Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Meyer, quickly worked out a routine with Royal Slam upon her arrival at Woodbine.

"I would always talk to her and let her know where I'm at," he explains.

Those first few moments in the barn, it was important for Jones to convince 'One Eye' that her stall was a safe home. As he worked his brush and applied her wraps, Jones would talk his way around the young filly so, even if she couldn't see him, she could hear his voice.

His patience has paid off. After each race, as he circles the filly putting on bandages, Royal Slam will move in tandem with him.

"I just turn to other side and say, 'Over', and she moves over, just like that," he laughs. "Like she knew it all the time. Now, I take her and rub her just like any other horse."

About the only thing the barn does differently to accommodate 'One Eye' is to hang a water bucket on the left-hand side of the shed row (as opposed to the backstretch norm of hanging buckets on the right) so that the filly doesn't have to search for a drink to quench her thirst while being cooled out after training.

Royal Slam will make her next start in Friday's fourth race - a 6 1/2-furlong sprint for $25,000 claimers. It will be the one-eyed filly’s first start against winners and Doyle believes she's well spotted.

"She seems to have found a level where she's competitive," says Doyle.

Jones, on the other hand, has loftier goals for the filly he's grown to love.

"I will say, she will win a stake race," nods Jones, who also rubbed Doyle's multiple stakes winner Dancing Raven. "She can go a lot further, she's bred for that. And not only that, she has the ability to do the job and do it right."

And while the modestly-bred filly might need to summon up some of the toughness that helped Jones' grandfather survive life on the docks to pick up a win on Friday, the veteran groom isn’t too concerned.

"I don't worry about bloodlines," he starts, while patting his chest with a calloused right hand. "As long as they've got a ticker."


Dom said...

What a great story :)

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