Lone Star Park Race Report: Sky High

Published in the May 4 issue of The Blood-Horse
Whenever Cole Norman saddles a winner, he jubilantly waves toward the heavens to acknowledge his late father, trainer Gene Norman. The waves have become increasingly frequent. And after the $300,000 Texas Mile (gr. III) on April 27 at Lone Star Park, who knows, the heavens could be rockin'.

With an erstwhile member of the claiming ranks named Unrullah Bull, Norman won the first graded stakes and the most lucrative race of his career in the Texas Mile. And then, of course, he waved a fist at the heavens.

The scene was a familiar one. The 33-year-old trainer has been in the winner's circle more frequently over the last few years than some track photographers. Norman has become a fixture atop the trainers' standings at Oaklawn Park and Louisiana Downs, and last year won with 40% of his Lone Star starters while finishing second to Steve Asmussen in the trainers' race.

Most of the Norman success has come in the sport's less conspicuous races, the middle-of-the-week claiming affairs. But for the Texas Mile, Norman boldly pushed one of his claimers into the rarefied air of graded stakes company, and with the familiar result, a visit to the winner's circle and a wave to the heavens.

It wasn't an easy spot. Hal's Hope, the venerable winner of the Gulfstream Park Handicap (gr. I) and of more than $1 million in his career, was the 6-5 favorite. Reba's Gold, the runner-up in Santa Anita's Tokyo City Handicap, was the 3-2 second-choice in the wagering. Also in from California to ride Reba's Gold came Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, whose longstanding reluctance to travel was in itself a high recommendation.

Just a year ago, Norman claimed Unrullah Bull on behalf of owner Jim Donnan for $25,000. He quickly advanced, first into allowance company and then, after a couple wins, to stakes competition. Unrullah Bull won the Ark-La-Tex Handicap at Louisiana Downs and ran second in the Silver Bullet Centennial Handicap at Remington Park. That hardly suggested he was ready to take on Hal's Hope and Reba's Gold, though savvy Lone Star fans made him just 6-1.

An upset seemed possible from the start. The two favorites weren't running comfortably and confidently. Hal's Hope went immediately to the lead, but bore out slightly in the first turn. His rider, Roger Velez, said the Florida-bred champion wasn't focused. Reba's Gold, blessed with natural early speed, raced in fourth position early and was carried five-wide in the first turn. Delahoussaye said Reba's Gold "wasn't getting over the ground well."

Hal's Hope led the field of nine older horses through a shockingly slow opening half-mile in :47.61 and through six furlongs in 1:12.08 while accompanied by Five Straight. As the field entered the second turn, Unrullah Bull and Compendium began to rally outside, and Mercenary inside. Reba's Gold also advanced, and at the top of the stretch, six horses lined up across the track for the run to the wire.

The situation became so tight that something had to give, and the something was Five Straight. Jockey Curt Bourque checked him sharply, and Five Straight retreated. Hal's Hope bumped with Mercenary, who tried to slip through an opening inside but got squeezed into the rail.

But Unrullah Bull just kept rolling. He pulled clear in the final furlong to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Reba's Gold. As if finally gaining confidence in the officially fast but somewhat dull surface, Reba's Gold finished with good energy to be second. Compendium was another 1 1/2 lengths back in third, and Hal's Hope hung on for fourth. Unrullah Bull completed the mile in 1:37.78.

The stewards made an official inquiry into the bumping at the head of the stretch, but could not assign blame to any one horse and did not alter the order of finish.

"I had plenty of horse," said winning jockey Anthony Lovato. "This horse loves to run on the outside, and when I saw him start to pick it up, I let him go on with it."

With the victory, Unrullah Bull earned $170,000 for Donnan, whose other claimer-to-stakes-winner success, Chauffe Au Rouge, was involved in an imbroglio over his eligibility for two Texas-bred Stakes. With the Texas Mile, Unrullah Bull improved his record to nine victories from 29 starts and his earnings to $419,410.

(Chart, Equibase)