With his cane under his arm, Bill Spawr marched through the darkness just after the Santa Anita Park main track opened for training at 4:30 a.m. April 22.
"It's not early if you do it every day," the 78-year-old trainer said with a grin as he continued his trek from Barn 37 to the Santa Anita grandstand. "You see why we do it, right?"
At the time of the statement, while Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" was barely audible from the kitchen at Clockers' Corner, there were four horses on the entire racetrack, and one of them happened to be Midnight Bisou, the potential favorite for the May 4 Longines Kentucky Oaks (G1).
At any other time during the morning, after the scheduled breaks for track maintenance, there can be dozens of horses waiting to train at the gap where the barn area meets the main track. And when the track opens for those training sessions, a cavalry charge commences.
"Accidents happen every day out here," Spawr said. "Also, the track is always better in the morning because it's damp. Charlie Whittingham used to stand right there. He got them out really early because he said, 'The track is like a pool table. It hasn't been used.'"
So in the calm of the early morning darkness, Spawr got to watch Allen Racing and Bloom Racing Stable's Midnight Lute filly work in peace. The stillness didn't last, however. The hum of leaf blowers intervened as Santa Anita staff swept away losing tickets from the day before, and the smell of industrial-strength cleaning products lingered as the grandstand was disinfected in preparation for the races of the day.
Guided by jockey Martin Pedroza, Midnight Bisou went about her work in standard Spawr fashion. The official time for five furlongs was 1:01 3/5 (Spawr had her a little quicker at 1:01 1/5), but that was inconsequential. The first quarter in :26, when the dark bay filly in the backstretch was visible only by the blinking red and white strobe lights on Pedroza's helmet, mattered little. The important part was when she finished up the final quarter to the wire in :23.
"She relaxes so well—:13 and change, :13 and change—she won't even be tired," Spawr said.
Not one to gush, Spawr often can't help himself with Midnight Bisou, who will take him to the Kentucky Oaks for the first time after a dominating performance in the April 7 Santa Anita Oaks (G1), the trainer's first grade 1 win since the days of Amazombie, who scored three top-level events in 2011-12, including the 2011 Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1). With that milestone comes expectations and pressure, but Spawr takes it in stride, even if he has to lean on that cane—albeit reluctantly—to get up and down the occasional set of stairs.
"It's a lot of work, with two going," Spawr said of Midnight Bisou and graded winner Skye Diamonds, who will ship with her stablemate to Churchill Downs for the May 5 Humana Distaff (G1). "It's more pressure, which causes more work. I'm at the barn three times a day on race days checking on those two."