Before he leaves his stall each morning, Bonapaw nibbles some carrots and then is the recipient of a 60-minute massage. Most people should have it so good.
The man rubbing his hands over the muscles of the 6-year-old gelding is Norman Miller, who also is the horse's groom, exercise rider, hotwalker...and trainer.
On Saturday, Bonapaw, who has won half of his 34 starts, will run in the NAPA Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I).
About 15 years ago, Miller, a third generation horseman, had a couple of cheap claiming horses. "I wanted a non-evasive procedure to try and get them back to their best," Miller said from barn 20 on the Arlington Park backside Tuesday morning. "I'm a big sports fan and I read where Andre Agassi was aided in his comeback by massage therapy."
So, Miller took massage therapy classes and taught himself about the muscle system of the horse. He is convinced it has made a difference in every horse he has trained since.
Miller was given Bonapaw to train by "the twins," Dennis and James Richard, after he had made 29 starts. Miller, who never keeps more than three horses, got ride of the two he had to devote himself completely to the solid stakes horse.
"It took a long time with Bonapaw," Miller said. "He had hard races and sore muscles."
Now, Bonapaw is a happy horse who nuzzles and plays with Miller every morning while receiving his massage.
Miller's first race with Bonapaw was the Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) in Dubai, where he ran sixth. Six weeks on the farm followed.
"People had said how tough it is on horses when they ship to Dubai, but it wasn't tough on him," the 47-year-old New Orleans-based trainer said. "Six weeks and he was ready."
With the Breeders' Cup Sprint in mind all along, Miller and Bonapaw have been stabled at Arlington Park since mid-summer. Bonapaw ran fourth in the Iowa Sprint Handicap in his first race back from the United Arab Emirates, then won two straight at Arlington, the Hanshin (gr. III) at a mile and the Arlington Park Sprint at six furlongs.
Next it was on to New York, where Bonapaw was the slight second choice in the Vosburgh (gr. I), at $1.55-1 while Aldebaran was $1.50-1. Bonapaw won the seven-furlong race at Belmont Park by 2 ½ lengths.
Bonapaw has natural speed, as obviously do many sprinters. That isn't a concern, Miller said. "You have to let horses run their style. Bonapaw will put himself in the race."
The only rider that has been aboard Bonapaw the past two years is Gerard Melancon, who arrives in Chicago Friday. As Miller was talking at the barn after galloping and hotwalking Bonapaw Tuesday morning, his cell phone rang. It was Melancon, calling to check on his first ever Breeders' Cup mount.
"This horse has picked his business up," Miller said of the jockey. "Gerard knows how to ride this horse. Bonapaw will put himself in the race, and Gerard will have to go with him."
After the Breeders' Cup, Miller may run Bonapaw in the Cigar Mile (gr. I) in November or wait for a race on the turf at Gulfstream in January. He is convinced Bonapaw's best distance is really a mile, and that because of his sire, Sabona, he should excel on the grass.
For now, however, he likes the signals he is feeling when he massages Bonapaw each morning. "As a trainer you always look for signs," he said. "You know a horse is right when all the signs are good. You have to get them to the top of their game, then maintain it."
How well he has maintained it will be found out when he saddles his first Breeders' Cup starter Saturday.
The next morning, win or lose, Bonapaw will get another massage.