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Hal Earnhardt is bullish on Ax Man's future

Hal Earnhardt is bullish on Ax Man's future
Ax Man and jockey Drayden van Dyke win their debut at Santa Anita in January. (Benoit Photo)

The Earnhardt name is known throughout the country for strong cars and big personalities. But it's not always about Dale and Dale Jr.

If you've ever spent a day in the Phoenix area and watched more than an hour of television you've probably seen a car commercial for an Earnhardt Auto Center dealership. Patriarch Tex, now well into his 80s, pulls a page out of the Cal Worthington playbook and sits atop a massive bovine, striding toward the camera as Tex makes promises of great deals. He concludes with "That ain't no bull."

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And it isn't, it's actually a steer (a neutered bull).

Now, Tex's son, Hal, who runs the 18 franchises, is making another run outside the car world and into horse racing, where this self-professed cowboy is very comfortable breeding and owning a potentially rising star on the Triple Crown trail.

Saturday at Santa Anita, a 3-year-old colt named Ax Man is making only his second lifetime start, yet it is being viewed with great anticipation and even whispers of the first Saturday in May, not that you can get anyone to speculate beyond the San Vicente Stakes.

Ax Man won his first race by 9 ½ lengths, beating eventual Robert Lewis Stakes winner Lombo, who finished third by 10 ½ lengths.

"I'd rather beat a horse that comes back and does well, like winning the Lewis, than have the other horse come back and not run at all," Earnhardt said. "But we'll see what happens on Saturday."

Earnhardt is not new to this game. He, along with trainer and longtime friend Bob Baffert, took Indian Charlie to the Kentucky Derby in 1998, where as the favorite he finished third. Earnhardt, along with his wife, Patti, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2007 with Indian Whispers and collected two Eclipse Awards during the horse's career.

But, that great success has been dormant for a while, until now.

"My family knows the ups and downs of this business," Earnhardt said. "I always know to not get ahead of things. I take it race to race."

It's unlikely you could pick anyone better than Baffert, who has won four Kentucky Derbies and 12 Triple Crown races, to get your horse ready. But this pairing is more than business.

"I don't look at him as client but as a good friend," Baffert said.

The families have known each other going back a generation when they were in the cattle business. Earnhardt is Baffert's longest standing client. When Baffert moved from Arizona to run quarter horses at Los Alamitos in 1983, Earnhardt sent along a filly, Miss Bud Light to his fledgling stable.

"When Bobby moved to Los Alamitos, I thought that was the biggest jump in the world coming from the bush tracks [in Arizona]," Earnhardt said. "I started with him in quarter horses. And when he went to thoroughbreds, I went too. We've been through thick and thin."

Earnhardt also introduced Baffert to Mike Pegram, one of his most successful owners including part-owner of one of this year's early Derby favorites, McKinzie. Earnhardt and Pegram owned a quarter horse together trained by Baffert.

"He's had some lean years," Baffert said of Earnhardt. "It's a roller coaster. He knows what can go wrong. … He's a realistic kind of guy.

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"But there is nothing like a good horse to put some spring in your step."

Ax Man could be that horse. Baffert spotted the talent early when he sent a message to Earnhardt.

"It was one of his workouts and Bobby just texted me that said 'runner,' " Earnhardt recalls.

The colt is named for one of Earnhardt's 11 grandchildren.

"My wife names everything," Earnhardt said. "We have a grandson, Axel, that she calls Ax Man. He's a fast little guy. And he loves sports. That's what she calls him when he's playing."

Ax Man, the horse, has been installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite in the 7-furlong race. He's drawn the disadvantageous one post. Seven furlongs is one of the most taxing races because it's too long for a traditional sprint but too short for a route, in which you can rate. You just have to run long and run hard.

"I think All Out Blitz is the one to beat," said Baffert, purposely tempering expectations. All Out Blitz finished second to McKinzie in the Sham Stakes.

"He ran really fast the first time out," Baffert said of Ax Man. "He ran a big number and I gave him some extra time to rest. I always had this race in mind. We'll learn more about him and we'll be patient and he'll let us know what to do from here."

Baffert has won the San Vicente nine times.

"Even as a foal we've been talking about him," Baffert said of the colt. "He's fast and he's still growing. Saturday is going to be a big step. Especially from the one hole. The quality is there and we just have to manage him right. I don't see why he wouldn't have a good run."

The Earnhardts did not come over from Arizona for Ax Man's first race. But most arrived on Friday, a day early, to see his second race. Axel had to wait until the school day was over before coming.

"It's exciting that we raced the mare," Earnhardt said of the dual role of breeder and owner. "I'm not one of the big guys. I do it by having a good plan and a good strategy. I breed up as much as I can. I don't go to the auctions and spend big dough. … But this makes us feel really good."

Earnhardt is hoping to feel really good about 2:55 p.m. on Saturday, after the sixth race.

And, dare it be said, that ain't no bull.

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