The horses were being loaded into the starting gate for the 1987 Kentucky Derby, and Phil Hauswald was about to see the culmination of months of planning and work with his colt Demons Begone.
The young trainer turned to the two friends who had come to Churchill Downs to share the biggest moment of his life and told them, “This horse is going to win. Ever since last fall he’s done everything perfectly -- right to the letter. It’s just meant to be.”
Hauswald never even saw the end of that Kentucky Derby. When it became apparent that the favorite was not going to be able to finish the race -- his jockey pulled him up on the backstretch -- the trainer hurriedly left his box seat, pushed his way through the massive crowd and went to the track to see what had gone wrong with his horse.
Although the public may have quickly forgotten Demons Begone amidst the excitement of Alysheba’s victory, Hauswald never will fully put the painful memory behind him. As he prepares Demons Begone at Gulfstream Park this winter for a comeback, he keeps wondering if something terrible might go wrong -- again.
If ever a horse had come to the Kentucky Derby with the perfect preparation, it was Demons Begone. As a 2 year old he had shown that he was as good as any horse of his generation. Hauswald didn’t have much experience with horses of this caliber but, having grown up in the shadow of Churchill Downs, he was steeped in Derby lore and he had a clear idea of the way he wanted to manage Demons Begone as a 3 year old.
He took the colt to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas for a series of three prep races, where his competition would be relatively weak. The colt could get fit without having to overtax himself, and he would come to Churchill Downs both fit and fresh.
“Everything went perfect,” Hauswald said. “He never coughed the whole winter. He never missed an oat. If I wanted him to work in :36 (seconds), he’d go in :36. He got through the whole week of the Derby perfectly.”
He got through everything but the Derby itself. Demons Begone wasn’t extending himself in the early stages of the race, and jockey Pat Day pulled him up, as Hauswald ran to the track to discover what had gone wrong. The colt had bled -- hemorrhaged from the lungs -- and, although the trainer was relieved to learn that the colt hadn’t broken down, he was as bewildered as he was depressed.
“He’d never shown any indications of bleeding before,” Hauswald said. “Why would the horse have picked this day to do it? It just didn’t add up. I cried. I got mad. In fact, everybody in the barn was in a state of shock.” Hauswald’s whole operation went into a slump.
A few weeks later he had put Demons Begone back in training and, convinced that the trauma of the Kentucky Derby was behind him, he entered the colt in the Ohio Derby at Thistledown. It was a bad decision -- Demons Begone ran dismally, lifelessly -- and Hauswald knew that it was a mistake. “I think we were pressing, trying to make something happen,” he conceded. “He’d been mentally affected by the Kentucky Derby; in his training I felt he was just going through the motions. I thought maybe that putting him back into competition would pick him up.”
When the experiment failed, Hauswald said, “I knew that we had exhausted every possibility except the obvious.” The obvious was rest. He put Demons Begone on the sidelines for the remainder of 1987.
Since the Kentucky Derby, Hauswald has spent a great deal of time trying to learn about the problem that afflicted Demons Begone. “I’ve done more reading about bleeders than you could believe,” the trainer said, “and in every study, you come to the last paragraph and the bottom line is: We just don’t know. The vets and the scientists don’t know why horses bleed. But it happens all the time and it can happen to the favorite in the biggest race in the world.”
Because of all the uncertainties about bleeding, Hauswald doesn’t quite know what to expect from Demons Begone in 1988. He hopes to run the 4 year old once at Gulfstream Park, then aim for the Oaklawn Park Handicap in April as his first major objective. “Right now,” the trainer said, “he’s right on schedule. I couldn’t be happier. But there is no way I will feel confident until he actually comes back and I see what he does on the track.”
Probably, Hauswald never will feel 100 percent confident about anything in his business again. He knows, better than anyone, how uncertain and unpredictable the game can be.