When retired jockey George Luna met Burning Brite three years ago, she was a filly with an attitude problem. “She was really wacko, a basket case,” says her trainer William Delia, a forty-year veteran of the racing game. No argument from her second trainer, Dean Pederson, who’d worked with the horse for a couple of months. “She was a candidate to hurt somebody,” he says.
George Luna knew from hurt. In an Evel Knievel-like eight years as a jockey on the “B” thoroughbred circuit from Boise to Calgary, Tijuana to Arizona, he sustained broken legs, cracked ribs, shattered shoulder blades, and a fractured pelvis. “I’ve landed on my head so many times, it sounds like broken glass in there every time I shake it,” he quips.
He’d heard about Burning Brite. “She was no good, cheap, and crazy,” George recalls. But when Pederson told him the three-year-old was for sale, Luna, who’d never owned a horse, went for a look-see. “She walked over and put her head on my shoulder,” he remembers. “I saw that she had potential and there was a kind heart in there somewhere.” He also noticed her soundness of body — “confirmation,” he says.
A thousand bucks traded hands — not much more, George notes, than a slaughterhouse might have paid for her — and thus began a tale of redemption. He redubbed the loco filly Dolores, after his father’s favorite movie actress, Dolores del Rio. She still runs as Burning Brite — this Jockey Club register name indicates her provenance as the offspring of High Brite and Burning Desire — but everybody around Golden Gate Fields calls her Dolores.
The story of Dolores and George was almost short-circuited by another romance. Race-track buddies rib the retired jock that he only bought Dolores to woo a potential girlfriend. George owns up to it. “I was gonna give her to a friend of mine, an apprentice jockey, up in Boise,” he says. “She never showed up.” Other plans to have Dolores race in Calgary and Edmonton were scuttled after she caught cold.
If you believe in destiny, George Luna and Golden Gate Fields were waiting for Dolores all along. For this, above all, is a love story. Doubters can show up any morning at Bill Delia’s Barn (#62), Stable 17, Golden Gate Fields, where George exercises horses for Delia in exchange for Dolores’ various stable and racing fees. He cuts a quick-stepping swath through the paddock, looking like a cross between Alice Cooper and Gary Cooper in his Hawaiian shirt, tan cowboy hat, and orange bandanna, speaking rapid-fire Spanglish to the grooms as the rising sun crawls over the El Cerrito hilltop. George shows up daily between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. with a fresh dozen in a pink box from Happy Donuts on San Pablo Avenue. Dolores nibbles and licks the sugar off a white-encrusted donut. Her owner eats the rest.
George’s small office nook in the stable is a mini-monument to his filly: Photos of her wins are plastered all around, and an easy chair sits directly across from her, so he can keep a close watch. He even puts Mozart in the Morning on the radio to soothe her — the horse has been given another nickname, “La Llorena” (the crybaby) — though it’s a running battle with the stable boys who want to listen to El Cucuy de la Mañana.
Dolores’ redemption began at the Oakland Public Stables. Four days a week, George would slalom her through barrel courses, go over jumps, and negotiate the rugged trails of the East Bay Hills. “I just let her be a real horse, and showed her that there was more to life than making left turns on a race track,” he says. When she returned to Golden Gate, Dolores was suddenly posting impressive split times in morning workouts. “I was asking her to work, and she was responding,” he says.
The new and improved Dolores had no takers for her first race. “I couldn’t find anybody that wanted to ride her,” George says. So, three years removed from the rigors of jockey life but still a trim 110 pounds, her owner donned the silks himself, and Dolores finished six lengths off the pace. “I thought, heck, if I can finish third, Russell Baze can win on her,” George says. In fact, the legendary Baze, who is Luna’s friend in addition to being the second-winningest jockey in history, agreed to give her a go. He “broke her maiden” — rode her to her first victory — by four lengths. From there, Dolores continued her ascent. As the end of Golden Gate’s last season approached, she’d won seven races in 38 starts, and brought in more than $120,000. Even the most hard-bitten trainers at Golden Gate admit Dolores is a rarity. Perhaps only 5 percent of the thousand horses there have had that kind of luck — and results.
Love builds trust, and with a 925-pound animal, that’s sort of important. Dolores used to panic and thrash around if anyone came near her head. On this midsummer race day, George grabs her in a playful headlock and pulls her close to his cowboy hat; minutes later, she holds still while he shoots a giant syringeful of Stress-Dex (horse Gatorade) into her mouth. “Oh, mami, you gonna run today,” he says, removing her night leg bandages and replacing them with something more protective for her morning exercise run.
When the track officially opens at 5:45 a.m., George and Dolores are the first ones on it for a morning jog to loosen her up for her 3:45 p.m. race. Next up is Dolores’ appointment with Bret Mason, who arrives at 6:30 to file and clip at her hooves, and hammer some new size-five shoes into place. Mason still finds the filly’s temperament a bit problematic. “She’s funny,” he says. “Sometimes she’s real good and sometimes she flakes out a bit.” Then, reflecting the boys’-club culture of the track, he shrugs and says, “Hey, she’s a woman.”
Well, today is a special challenge for this four-legged “woman.” As Dolores has moved up in the ranks, so too has the quality of her opponents: This afternoon, she is in a six-horse field of horses aged four and older that have already won at least two races. The claiming price is $62,500. In her very first race, by contrast, any other owner could have posted $8,000 prior to the start and claimed her afterward. She also has drawn the No. 1 slot, the rail position, which is a tough place for most horses, even tougher for a claustrophobic animal like Dolores. What’s more, the field includes Mahalo, who beat Dolores two months ago, and is being ridden by Baze, the superstar.
Dolores negotiates the starting gate without difficulty, and George, now attired in a handsome suit and watching through binoculars, is pleased. “Hey, she walked right in!” he exclaims. He is even happier at the first turn, where Dolores and Irish Femme share the lead. But it’s short-lived: The owner fears jockey Davey Lopez has taken her out too fast. Sure enough, she fades to sixth. George laughs it off, but he’s moderately upset. As of this race day she has had no wins yet in 2005, and the heartache of losing is starting to catch up with the thrill of victory. Still, man and horse alike are the better for their relationship. “They’re like two halves of an orange,” comments Cesar Nungaray, who came to Golden Gate five years ago from Guadalajara as a fourteen-year-old groom. “What Dolores needs, George gives her, and what George needs, she gives him.”
In the days following the race, George and trainer Delia debate whether to run Dolores at five furlongs (not her distance) on the turf (not her surface) the next Sunday, the last day of the track’s spring meet. Should they send her up to Seattle to run? Down to Hollywood Park? Sell her as a brood mare? (Her half sister has earned $800,000 in racing purses, so there’s a bit of magic in the genes that breeders might look upon favorably. Maybe not the most romantic ending to a love story, but in the horse game you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines.)
Blissfully unaware of the debate concerning her future, Dolores’ next shot at glory comes this Thursday at the Sonoma County fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, running against slightly easier competition for a smaller, $15,000 purse. Baze will be astride her again, but George is sanguine about her chances. “Well, anything can happen,” he says. “These will be the shortest odds on her in a long time. But this isn’t an American tale — it’s a Mexican-American tale.”
How the story ends remains to be seen — Hollywood hasn’t gotten hold of it yet. But it’s one for the true believers, a parable in giving it your best shot, a tale of hope for anyone who roots for the beautiful losers of this world — the true long shots. George, after all, can sometimes be heard calling his horse Seabagel. “Because she has a hole in her head!” he exclaims.