The deep shine flashing from his dark brown eyes carries a confidence earned from years of preparing for big moments. Three such opportunities arrive Saturday for Arlington Park's two-time defending top jockey and this meet's leading rider, Rene Douglas.Douglas takes the reins on inside starter Owsley (10-1) in the $700,000 Beverly D, Kaieteur (20-1) in the Arlington Million and Lismore Knight (6-1), also from the rail, in the $400,000 Secretariat.
Beside Kent Desormeaux, Douglas is the only other jockey riding in all three stakes. It is a day that may define his future.
The 36-year-old Panamanian native has just finished a race Thursday which he has won, on a hot, humid afternoon, the first of three winner's circle photos he'd be featured in. That's an overwhelming 100 victores this summer, nearly twice as many as his nearest rival in the Arlington jockey standings going into Friday's program.
He's dropped the heavy red, white and blue silk into the pile by the silk room door in the air-conditioned lobby of the jockey's quarters where he sits to talk with a reporter about his impending date with destiny. He leaves his flak jacket and helmet in the locker room to dry off.
His small long face is flanked by large ears that have proven to be ones that have learned to listen well. His nose has that wide Roman look of a fighter, which the 5'4", 113-pound former boxer is.
A strongly defined body of low-fat muscle creases through his sweat-drenched tee shirt. He has the relaxed look of a champion.
Douglas doesn't lift weights, jog or do much exercise riding in the mornings, so as to save his legs for the races. He remains a student of yoga while stretching before coming to the track to keep his mind strong. Controlling thundering Thoroughbreds several times a day is all the physical workout he needs. His quietly tough character came from home as a youngster.
"My father, who's a dentist, owns race horses in Panama," Douglas said. "In Panama, I boxed, and swam professionally, until the others in my age group grew bigger. My father told me to ride. He said, if you can't be the best in boxing or swimming, then get out. He was pretty tough, but thanks to him, I became a jockey around 14 years old. I was pretty green, but I learned how to be good."
Douglas won the jockey title at Calder in 1993, the Belmont Stakes aboard Editor's Note in 1996, and appears on his way to a third riding title at Arlington, he hasn't broken through to the next level that awaits championship jockeys.
Like others on Saturday's card: Desmormeaux, Pat Day, Mike Smith, David Flores, Gary Stevens, Michael Kinane, Corey Nakatani and Patrick Valenzuela. Then there are still other contemporaries such as Robbie Albarado, Mark Guidry, Aaron Gryder and Shane Sellers, who have dominated Arlington in the past and ventured on to swim with the sharks on either coast or blue grass country.
Douglas has been there and done that, competing in Kentucky, New York, California and Florida. There's still that upper tier of jockeys he's competing to become one of.
"It's hard to swallow not getting the chance for bigger races around the country," exclaims his emphatic agent, Dennis Cooper. "Coming out of the Midwest you don't get the recognition those guys do out west or on the East Coast. If Rene was in New York he'd be riding every big horse there is."
The big international fields are here at Arlington this weekend, a track where Douglas has dominated stakes races. He's won 15 in his first two years since moving here full time, 11 of those last season. Earlier this summer, Douglas won on 7 of 9 mounts July 24 tying Hall of Famers Pat Day and Earlie Fires for as many wins on one live card, and one short of Day's record 8 of 9 in 1989.
His only previous mount in the Million came last year when he finished fifth aboard Falcon Flight. His horse was held up by a wall down the stretch, finishing in a flourish in a memorable blanket photo of six horses. Beat Hollow won by a neck.
"It's important to win the big stakes," Douglas stated. "I've won many big races, but I'd sure would be happy to win any of them on Saturday. If I don't then, I'll just come back out on Sunday and try to win some more. I don't have anything to prove to anyone, because of the meet I'm having. I know I can ride as good as anyone."
Winning grade I races and getting mounts in top stakes, such as the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup series would prove that, but staying in Chicago full time may not be the recipe to achieve such greatness.
"I don't know what 'Coop' (agent Cooper) has in mind after Arlington yet," Douglas said. "My wife and two sons will go on a vacation to the islands after this meet, and then my agent and I will sit down and talk about what's next."
Winning any of the three grade I races Saturday would be a boost to Douglas and his agent's attempt to get him into more major races in the future. The jockey has 10 mounts tomorrow, including rides in three $50,000 stakes on the undercard.
"I don't have any bad habits, " states Douglas on his preperation for the races. "I'll read the forms on the horses Friday for Saturday's program and look at tapes of the horses. I'll prepare to win on each horse, like I always do. When I come to the track Saturday, I'll be ready."