Rugula's Trainer Had To Fight For His Chance

By Kathleen Adams
No matter how hard he tried, Vancouver British Columbia Racing Hall of Fame trainer Dave Forster was not able to dissuade his oldest son from pursuing a career on the racetrack.

"The day (Grant) told me he wanted to be a trainer, I said, 'Son, you picked a hard way to make an easy living,'" Dave Forster said in a telephone interview.

So, the elder Forster made a series of deals with his son all designed to postpone the inevitable. First, he encouraged Grant to earn a degree in a racetrack management.

"I thought going into management would be a better life," explained Dave Forster, who started working with racehorses as a teen in Canada.

Respecting his father's wishes, Grant graduated in 1997 from the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program. Soon afterwards, he landed a job in media relations at Emerald Downs.

But the lure of the backside proved too strong to resist.

"My dad was really disappointed at first," Forster said. "He wouldn't let me quit right away."

That's when Dave Forster offered to give Grant 10% of a racehorse named Red River Valley. In return, Grant would be responsible for grooming the horse and devising its training schedule while still maintaining his day job.

"It was the worst thing Dad could do," said Forster, 30, while sitting inside a tack room at Churchill Downs just feet away from his Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) charge Rugula. "The horse won two races and we had two hellacious win parties."

At a crossroads, Grant Forster resigned his position with Emerald Downs and took a bartending job in the Dominican Republic. While there, he wrote a letter to his father explaining why he wanted to be a Thoroughbred trainer.

"Reading it brought tears to my eyes," Dave Forster said. "I got over being upset and told him, 'If you want to do this, I'll do everything I can to support you.'"

That support didn't mean simply handing over horses to Grant. Instead, it came in the form of a job. During the spring of 2000, Grant Forster moved into a tack room on the backside of Emerald Downs and started working as a groom for his father.

As time went on, Grant undertook more responsibility. He was promoted to assistant trainer and took a string of horses to Golden Gate Fields for his dad. Grant also began making the daily phone calls to owners and developed relationships with them.

In 2003, while at Oaklawn Park, Grant took out his trainer's license.

And that's when some of his father's major owners, such as Janice Whitham and Herman Sarkowsky gave him horses to train. Even Grant's former boss, Ron Crockett, president of Emerald Downs, sent him horses.

Last winter, Al and Saundra Kirkwood told Grant they wanted him to purchase a horse for them.

After she won an allowance race at Hawthorne Park last December by more than 10 lengths, Rugula, was the horse Grant set his sights on.

But another party had already signed a letter of intent for the bay filly. When that deal suddenly fell through, the Kirkwoods negotiated a price for the daughter of Bernstein and sent her to Grant.

"January eleventh at Oaklawn Park is when we got her," Forster said. "You don't know at that point if she's the next coming of Ruffian or just a nice allowance horse. My goal at that point was to get to the Fantasy."

Rugula finished second in the Fantasy Stakes (gr. II). Prior to that, she placed second in the Honeybee Stakes.

"Basically, everything has fallen into place," Forster said of his decision to enter the filly in the Oaks. "She's just gotten stronger and better with every race. Soundness wise, she's been great."

Jockey Greta Kuntzweiler has ridden Rugula in her last three starts and will maintain the mount in the Oaks said Forster.

"I've had a lot of luck with Greta," Forster said. "I like Greta on these kinds of fillies. She's not really high-strung, but has a lot of energy. I believe in fitting the jock with the horse."

Forster said he thinks Rugula will prove highly competitive in the Oaks.

"She can handle anything," he said. "She doesn't have to take her racetrack with her. She's already run good on three tracks. Hopefully, this (Churchill Downs) will be the fourth."

Forster's father will be by his side when he saddles Rugula in the paddock at Churchill Downs Friday afternoon. And when she steps out onto the racetrack, she'll carry with her the lessons Forster learned from the renowned trainer.

"His style of training is very old school," Forster said. "He never cuts corners. Basically, it's a lot of tender loving care."