Mary Hale phoned her boyfriend, Michael Henson, in Miami Monday night.
Hale, the groom for Spend a Buck, one of the contenders Saturday in the 111th Kentucky Derby, phones Henson, also a groom, almost every night. And since Hale has been on the road almost constantly with the speedy 3-year-old colt for the last eight months, the calls add up.
Hale should try getting a discount from her sister, who works for Southern Bell in Miami. “My phone bill was $170 last month,” Hale said.
Most of the calls in March were from New Jersey, where Spend a Buck was in training at Garden State Park. The colt, coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery to remove a bone chip, has made three starts as a 3-year-old, finishing third in the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct and winning both the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes in gallops.
Hale knows when Spend a Buck is going to win. “When he bites somebody the day of the race,” she said.
Hale has numerous bruises from being nipped by Spend a Buck, on race days as well as other days. Hale said that the colt was as tame as a tabby as a 2-year-old, but now he’s physically more mature and intolerant of people hanging around his stall.
To make sure no unsuspecting visitor gets bitten at Churchill Downs, Hale has put a tall, bright orange highway cone directly in front of the horse’s stall. The cone is on loan, sort of, from Garden State Park, where it effectively kept Spend a Buck from snacking on passers-by.
The entire Spend a Buck crew--owners Dennis and Linda Diaz, trainer Cam Gambolati, jockey Angel Cordero, exercise rider Bobby Velez and Hale--is hoping that the horse will bite somebody Saturday before the Derby.
“Just to keep the superstition going, we gave the hotwalker $20 to get close to Buck and get bit before the Cherry Hill,” Hale said. “He got bit pretty bad, so we gave him $50 before the Garden State. But he told us that was the last one, no matter what we paid.”
Hale was the exercise rider for Spend a Buck before he became too much for her to handle in the mornings. She was replaced by Velez, who also exercised Eillo, last year’s sprint champion.
Since last September, Hale and Spend a Buck have been inseparable. They have been together in Cincinnati, where he won the Cradle Stakes at River Downs; in Chicago, where he won the Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington Park; in New Jersey, where he finished second behind Script Ohio in the Young America Stakes; at Hollywood Park, where he was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; and then in New Jersey for his three starts as a 3-year-old this season.
On April 22, two days after Spend a Buck’s victory in the Garden State, Hale accompanied him on a 2 1/2-hour van ride from the Philadelphia-area track to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. With them on the two-hour flight from New York to Louisville were Eternal Prince, Proud Truth and Rhoman Rule, other Derby contenders who had run 1-2-3 in the Wood Memorial April 20.
“It was a perfect flight, because we came with Tex Sutton, who’s had so much experience flying horses,” Hale said. “No waiting around. And the plane is set up with stalls for the horses. If we couldn’t have come with those other horses, I think we would have vanned Buck to Louisville, and I wasn’t looking forward to that. It would have taken 15 hours.”
When Spend a Buck was flown from Miami to New Jersey earlier this year, he went on a cargo plane, no picnic for horse or groom. “At one point, they turned all the lights out,” Hale said. “You couldn’t see the hand in front of your face. It was horrible.”
Spend a Buck is in Stall 22 of Barn 42 at Churchill Downs, which is an exclusive location. Stall 21 was occupied by Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk--all Derby winners. Stall 21 is vacant this year. Hale is using it as a feed shed for Spend a Buck, and she laughed off a suggestion by a reporter that this was showing disrespect for the memory of Secretariat and the others.
“I didn’t know they were in there,” she said.
Gambolati drops Hale off at the barn at about 6 a.m. each day, then goes to the track kitchen and brings back coffee for the stable crew. Most of Spend a Buck’s entourage is staying at the Executive West, a large hotel only a couple of miles from Churchill Downs.
After Spend a Buck either gallops or works out at the track, Hale sees that he’s fed and groomed. In the afternoons, she and Velez have gone shopping, taking in a nearby flea market a couple of days.
“I’ve bought a lot of T-shirts to take home,” Hale said. “Something I haven’t found yet is Kentucky Derby jackets, but I’m sure I’ll get some.”
Hale, 30, has been at the race track for 11 years, having made the transition from dogs to horses through a friend who was a hotwalker. Hale groomed dogs in a pet shop and once owned and rode a jumping horse.
“I’d like to get back to riding,” Hale said. “I miss it a lot. The only time I get on Spend a Buck anymore is getting him home (back to his stall) after he’s been on the track. A trainer at Garden State needed some help and put me on three horses a day in the mornings while we were there.”
Hale might not play as important a role with Spend a Buck in the mornings anymore, but her assignment for Saturday is vital. She’s got to find somebody who will sacrifice himself to Spend a Buck. Even Gambolati would let the horse bite him if he could be sure it meant winning the Derby.