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Trainer David Cross and Sunny’s Halo

The summer of 1982 had been a good one for Sunny’s Halo and Toronto-based trainer David Cross. The colt had won five of 11 starts, including four Canadian stakes races and been named the champion two-year-old colt in Canada. Cross thought Sunny’s Halo deserved a chance to try for the Kentucky Derby the following spring — but a winter in Toronto was no place to get ready for the Run for the Roses.

With fall now turning to winter, Cross and his wife Patty made a decision to roll the dice. Throw everything in on their Derby hope, a long shot, at best. Cross conferred with Sunny’s Halo’s owner D. J. Foster, who told Cross to go ahead. Pursue the dream. Take a run at the Roses. Cross called his other horse owners, placed their horses in the care of other trainers at Woodbine Race Course, and took off.

Rather than head to Florida with the rest of the Canadian “snow birds,” Cross had a yen to try California. Head to the West, where good weather beckoned, just like Florida, and the competition was tops, as well. If anything, the notion of heading off to California with one horse and a crazy dream of making it to the Kentucky Derby was as much of a long shot chance for Cross as it was for the horse.

Sunny’s Halo was sent along by van, and the Crosses loaded up their car and headed west. Along the way, their route passed through Las Vegas, and the couple stopped for a few days vacation. While in town, the Crosses bought a Kentucky Derby future book bet on their horse. In a “future book,” one places a bet on a horse for the Kentucky Derby months before the race is run. If something happens that the horse doesn’t run — for any reason — there’s no refund. The odds can be long, and certainly should be. Probably the Crosses thought of their bet not so much as a sharp wager, but as an affirmation if their gameness. The bet reportedly was $200 at 100-1.

But then the rains came in Californnia. In recent years, the Golden State has been plagued with draught, with no rain during its rainy season. But in the winter of 1983, the rains fell. And kept falling. The trainer had counted on California sunshine and a good track to train Sunny’s Halo for the Kentucky Derby, but he wasn’t getting it.

Finally, Cross pulled the plug on the California Dream, and packed horse and humans off for Hot Springs, Arkansas, looking for fairer weather.

And got it. At Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Ark., Sunny’s Halo finally got to bend into serious training, turning in the long gallops and short breezes designed to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. Right off, Sunny’s Halo checked off a victory in the Rebel Stakes, in March, then added the Arkansas Derby, in April. Next stop: Churchill Downs.

Where it was raining again. Raining and raining… and raining! Of course, the rains were a problem for all the Derby candidates, but maybe especially for a horse named Sunny.

Cross planned a final workout for Sunny’s Halo for Sunday morning, May 1, six days before the 109th Run for the Roses. The final, big, last, ultimate, can’t-miss-it workout that would sharpen the sunny red chestnut for the Kentucky Derby.

Through the early hours of Sunday morning the rain slowed, but still was spitting and showering as daylight dawned gray over Louisville. Just getting to the track was difficult. Backside workers and visitors found themselves taking all sorts of alternate routes. Fourth Street and Third Street were blocked by flooding, as was Eastern Parkway. We splashed across an old railroad service road through Strawberry Yards and finally made it into the track to find Cross at his barn, looking up at the sky, looking for a break in the clouds.

Sunny’s Halo was being led round and round the shed row cover, waiting for the call. And finally it came. The rain stopped, there was a little glow of light between great clouds and Cross sent his exercise rider and horse onto the racetrack. The pair went to work, putting in a little walk first, then a jog to loosen up, finally letting fly a mile in 1:41 3/5 seconds over a sloppy track.

Back at the barn, the rain picked up again, but all hands wore smiles. Maybe even Sunny’s Halo, who as a son of the notoriously ill-tempered sire Halo, didn’t smile much.

With his horse put away safely, trainer Cross kicked off a reporter’s interview.

“That’s it,” Cross declared, with a big deep breath. “We got what we needed. He’s ready.”

 And ready Sunny’s Halo was. Under a beautiful sunny sky, rider Eddie Delahoussaye sent Sunny’s Halo to the front on the backstretch on the way to victory in the 109th Kentucky Derby.