For the full magazine version of this story, check out the Sept. 21 issue of The Blood-Horse.
They called him the "Panamaniac," an erratic runner who propped, wheeled, and zig-zagged his way across the strip down at Hipódromo Presidente Remón. In one start, Private Zone ducked to the inside and his jockey lost the irons for a nerve-wracking 200 meters. Yet somehow he managed to win, not once, but on multiple occasions.
Private Zone wins in Panama in spite of causing his rider to lose the irons.
The sheer talent of this 4-year-old son of Macho Uno inspired former jockey and native Panamanian Rene Douglas to buy him for U.S. competition, and with a recent victory in the Sept. 4 Pirate's Bounty Stakes (VIDEO) at Del Mar, Private Zone stamped himself as a legitimate Breeders' Cup contender.
Private Zone in the Pirate's Bounty Stakes - Benoit Photo
"He hasn't run a lot this year, but now he's ready to go. This is our time to shine," Douglas said.
Private Zone was bred in Ontario by Adena Springs out of the Siphon mare Auburn Beauty, then went to the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale. His story took an intriguing turn when he was purchased by Douglas' brother, Rogelio, for $15,000. Like many middle-market horses with strong North American pedigrees, he was sent to compete in Panama, where he earned his wild-man reputation.
"There's a difference between being green and being crazy," Rene Douglas said. "He wasn't crazy, he was just green. He wasn't doing things the right way, and he was still winning like that."
Through three wins and two seconds from nine starts, including victory in the group I Clasico Francisco Arias Paredes y Alberto Arias Espinos in April of 2012, Private Zone showed enough to be purchased for $80,000 by Douglas and his partners, who race as Good Friends Stable.
"I picked this horse because I knew I could move him up," Douglas said. "Everybody thought I was crazy—not the horse, it was me. My friends saw his races on tape and said, 'How can we buy a horse like this?' I said, 'I'm going to buy him and you want to be in on it, because he's going to prove to you that he can be really good.' "
Upon his arrival in the U.S., Private Zone was entrusted to Doug O'Neill, and his reeducation began. He took a few starts to get his bearings, but in his past five outings in California stakes, he hasn't finished off the board.
"A lot of people said 'Oh well, he had too many seconds,' but I want to make it clear we got 'too many seconds' to the best horses in America," Douglas said.
The man has a point. In the Vernon Underwood (gr. III) last December, Private Zone was runner-up to grade I winner Smiling Tiger. In the Malibu Stakes (gr. I) he was second to Jimmy Creed. In the Palos Verdes (gr. II) at the beginning of the year he was second by a length to Sahara Sky—the eventual winner of the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I)—and finished ahead of eventual grade I winner Justin Phillip.
Private Zone even took his connections to Dubai this spring, and although he finished ninth in the March 30 Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News (UAE-I), his successful return five months later could be a sign of good things to come.
"Dubai was a beautiful experience, but the horse lost a lot of weight going over there, and I knew we were going to be in trouble going into the race when I saw him like that," Douglas said. "He only got beat four lengths, and we put that race behind us. When the horse got back to California, we agreed to give him 60 days off. I thought that was best for him, and he came back even better than before."
Private Zone's connections originally had the Oct. 5 Santa Anita Sprint Championship (gr. I) in mind for their runner, but may instead train up to the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) after the gelding's big performance at Del Mar. Douglas said Private Zone ran hard in the Pirate's Bounty, and he believes the time will do him good.
Another change that has proven beneficial in Private Zone's program is the gradual reduction of the blinkers he wears.
"In Panama, he was running with full blinkers, and I hate to put full blinkers on horses; I just don't like it," Douglas said. "In Panama they were afraid if they didn't do it, he would do something really bad, like prop or make a U-turn. So I decided to pull the blinkers little by little, and one day our goal is to run in no blinkers.
"Right now he's got cheater blinkers, because we've tried to shorten them up. The other day in the Pirate's Bounty, he saw the horse coming back beside him and he refused to get beat. That's always a beautiful sign."
Douglas said he has also been encouraged by Private Zone's strength on the gallop-out in many of his races.
"After the wire, you figure he would pull himself up because he's just dead tired, but the horse will open up five or six lengths in the gallop-out on everybody," he said. "He's got the heart of a lion, this horse. He just proved that he just loves to run, and nobody deserved to win more than the horse last time."
Douglas, a gifted horseman who was paralyzed in a racing accident at Arlington Park in 2009, said Private Zone has given him a positive connection to the sport. He traveled to Dubai and also plans to be at Santa Anita for the Nov. 1-2 Breeders' Cup.
"It's great to have a good horse, and this horse has been really good not only for me, but for my friends," he said. "I won a lot of grade I races in my career, so I've been there… I know the feeling of winning those races is amazing. For my friends, I felt so happy when the horse won the race like that, because they've never had a great horse like him before.
"I rode a lot of horses in my life but not many like this horse. His heart is so big, it's unbelievable. I'm glad he won the other day and got a lot of recognition. I really think we have a huge chance in the Breeders' Cup. Those other horses have been racing so many times this year, and this horse is fresh."