It was this past March that Norm, Colleen, Gerry, Bone, Dakota, and the twins packed up their suitcases and left New Orleans to see the world. They traveled to the deserts of Dubai, the cornfields of Iowa, the Windy City of Chicago, and finally on to New York City, where fame and riches awaited them in the Big Apple. By winning the $300,000 Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I) on Sept. 21, it meant they would return home having collected $347,500 along the way, while achieving the lofty status of grade I winner. Now it's time to introduce this unlikely group of travelers, who have cut out a good-sized swath from the tapestry of Americana. You have the twins, Dennis and Jimmy Richard, who left college in northern Louisiana, opened a tire store, then two, then three, then four, then they retired, handing the business over to their children. There's jockey Gerard Melancon, who does all of the driving on the tour. Doing all the navigating and hands-on work is trainer Norman Miller, assisted by his fiancée, Colleen Baker, and her 20-year-old Quarter Horse, Dakota. And finally, there is the star of the show, Bonapaw, a 6-year-old running machine who has responded to Miller's dedication and tender loving care by becoming one of the top sprinters in America. And to think, this gelding by Sabona (who stands in Illinois for $1,500) is the only horse trained by Miller and the only horse owned by the Richards, who bought him as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale for a meager $6,500. For the past two years, Bonapaw has been the pride of Fair Grounds, having won five stakes there, including back-to-back Thanksgiving Handicaps. In April 2001, the Richard twins decided to hit the road for the first time in Bonapaw's career. Trained by the Richards' boyhood friend Howard "Tucker" Alonzo, Bonapaw won the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (gr. III) at Oaklawn and the Iowa Sprint Handicap at Prairie Meadows, and placed in graded stakes at Churchill Downs and Saratoga. When Alonzo's wife became ill and he was unable to travel to Saratoga, the Richards sent the horse to the Spa with trainer Albert Stall Jr. Bonapaw returned home to Louisiana and was given to Miller, who was helping out Alonzo, while training three horses of his own at the Folsom Training Center. Miller began an extensive program of physical therapy on the horse. "I started studying stress point therapy about 12 years ago," Miller said. "I believe in bonding with horses and being constructive with my hands. I also gallop them so I can feel how they're changing leads and if they're getting out." After Bonapaw won the Taylor's Special Handicap at Fair Grounds on Feb. 24, the Richards received an unexpected invitation to the $2-million Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I). "They must have thought we were big dogs," Dennis Richard said. "We decided to give it a shot, and because Tucker's wife was ill and he wasn't able to go, we called Norman and said, 'Come to Dubai with us.' Unfortunately, they made us take the toe grabs off the horse's shoes and he couldn't get hold of the track (finishing sixth). But we had a great time and would love to learn from our mistakes and go back again." With an extensive travel campaign planned after returning home, the Richards asked Miller if he wanted to train the horse. He got rid of his other three horses and devoted all his time to Bonapaw. "This isn't a numbers game to me," he said. "That's not what I'm about and it's not what the horses are about. I work from the heart. When the twins hired me they got me 100%. They got a trainer, groom, exercise rider, physical therapist, and van driver. They also got my fiancée, Colleen, and her pony, Dakota, who has been great with 'Bone.' For a 20-year-old, he's in fantastic shape and goes to the track with 'Bone' every day." After getting hooked up in a suicidal speed duel with Men's Exclusive and finishing fourth in the Iowa Sprint Handicap, Bonapaw rattled off back-to-back victories at Arlington in the one-mile Hanshin Handicap (gr. III) and the six-furlong Arlington Sprint Handicap, winning both by daylight in fast times (1:34.00 for the mile and 1:09.13 for the six furlongs). "That really pumped us up again, and we decided to send him to New York," Richard said. "I have a tendency to get high until someone knocks me down." No one knocked him down in the Vosburgh, as Bonapaw, as expected, was sent right to the front by Melancon and set brisk fractions of :22.44 and :45.10. That's fast for most horses, but not for one whose last three workouts were five furlongs in :57 1/5 handily at Belmont, :57 3/5 breezing at Arlington, and :56 3/5 breezing at Prairie Meadows. The Bobby Frankel-trained Aldebaran, who was the slight favorite over Bonapaw, settled in fourth, seven lengths back. Around the turn, Bonapaw shrugged off the challenge of Voodoo, who was coming off an allowance victory over Aldebaran, and opened a clear lead, while amazingly still under wraps. Melancon remained high in the saddle, as if there were no one near him. Aldebaran was putting in his usual late run under Pat Day, but passing the eighth pole, Melancon finally offered some slight urging to Bonapaw and the gelding drew off to win by 2-1/2 lengths in 1:22.34. It was another 2-1/2 lengths back to Voodoo in the six-horse field. The victory pushed Bonapaw's career earnings over the $1-million mark. Not bad for an obscurely bred horse who sold as hip number 3018 at the sale. "I was broke at the time," Dennis Richard recalled. "My brother was at the sale and asked me if I wanted to go in partnership with him on a yearling for $22,000. I told him I wasn't interested. Then he called back and said he had one for $42,000, and I said no way. Then he called again and had one for $12,000, and I said nope. Finally, on the last day of the sale, he called and said, 'I got one for $6,500. Do you want him?' I said, 'Do I want him? Put him on a trailer and send him home.' " Bonapaw is not eligible for the Breeders' Cup, and Richard said they have no plans to put up $200,000 to supplement him. "Sure, we're tempted," he said. "We want to be the best in the world. But then reality sets in." It was later learned that Richard was mistaken, and that the supplementary fee would only be $90,000, so the temptation is still there. The morning after the Vosburgh, Miller was "feeling awesome" as he poulticed Bonapaw's legs. He'll walk the horse for a few days, then put him on the Richards' four-horse trailer and head back to New Orleans.
"We got no name, but we got a super great horse," Miller said. "We wake up every morning for this horse." As the Richards prepared to board a plane back home, Dennis couldn't believe how far they've come with Bonapaw--from a $6,500 yearling to maiden defeats at Evangeline Downs to grade I winner in New York. "It's going to take me two weeks to come down," he said. "We know he's a freak. But he's our freak."Pulling Up
By Steve Haskin -- Other than Bonapaw's victory, it was business as usual at Belmont, with trainer Bobby Frankel taking the Noble Damsel Handicap (gr. IIIT) on Sept. 21 with Juddmonte Farms' Tates Creek and Todd Pletcher capturing the following day's Jamaica Handicap (gr. IIT) with Dogwood Stable's Finality. With the turf course rock hard, Tates Creek blazed the mile in 1:32.79, defeating Amonita by a length. Finality used an explosive turn of foot to defeat front-running Union Place in 1:46.66 for the 1-1/8 miles. (Chart, Equibase)