In the rush of victory, while living out the sweetest moment of his professional life, the culmination of his dreams, David Cross Jr. had a vivid remembrance of things past that took him back more than 25 years. "It's just something that enters your mind at a moment when you're on a high," said Cross. "You think of something that happened years before in your life. It's funny what things go through your mind."
And when. It was only minutes after Cross, a 48-year-old trainer who's a veteran of large and small circuits from Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts to Turf Paradise in Arizona, saw his Sunny's Halo win the 109th running of the Kentucky Derby last Saturday. No man had gambled more on this Derby than Cross—he had staked almost everything he had on bringing this horse to this race. Following the ceremony in the winner's circle, Cross started back for the clubhouse, crossing the racetrack.
"All of a sudden, as I crossed the track, it struck me," he said, standing in front of Sunny's Halo's stall two hours after the race. "It was the winter of 1957-58. I was at Turf Paradise, sitting on a bale of hay on Christmas Day and talking to myself and eating carrots—a punk-assed kid with three broken-down horses. If I hadn't been intimate with the feed woman. I wouldn't have had the carrots."
There was a brief pause. Sunny's Halo's groom. John Sears Jr., slipped past and flicked off the light in the colt's stall. The hour was growing late, and the party at the barn was nearly over. The leggy young chestnut with the white face stepped to the back of his stall, dissolving in the darkness.
Cross smiled, thinking. "I'll tell you what I did." he said. "I looked at those three horses, all sore. One sucker is layin' there upside down. Another one has his leg stuck out underneath the webbing of the stall. The other is standing in a tub of ice. I thought to myself. "Jesus, three months ago I had all the money in the world! I was doing good. And here I am." You know—chicken one day, feathers the next. I couldn't even go out and knock some s.o.b. up side of the head and rob him, because you couldn't get enough for a Christmas dinner that way. And Christmas dinners were only $1.75 then. You could turn the whole barn area upside down and not get $1.75.
"At least I had carrots. I been hungry many a time. Yeah, I sure have a beautiful memory today, tell you that. It was a bonus even getting here to the Derby. It wasn't like coming in with a piece of garbage or something. I came in here with a legitimate horse. Then seeing him become one of the favored horses. This is a wonderful day, believe me."
This Kentucky Derby, more than any other in recent memory, belonged to one man, to Cross, who a) bought Sunny's Halo's dam. Mostly Sunny, for owner David Foster out of a sale for $3,900; b) trained her, raced her and finally retired her to stud; c) suggested breeding her to Halo, a beautifully bred son of Hail to Reason, which mating produced Sunny's Halo; d) conditioned the offspring from the fall of his yearling year, in 1981, through the Derby; e) had all but given up a stable of 30 other horses to focus his energy on Sunny's Halo, gambling his career on this one horse; f) followed a course to the Derby that defied conventional wisdom in two important particulars, which would have opened him up to sharp criticism had he failed.
Cross has known little but racetracks all his life. In fact, he was born at one, old Willows Park in Victoria, British Columbia, to a family involved in the game. Over the years, he groomed and walked horses, worked as a jockey's valet and even rode briefly, if badly. "I always wanted to ride in the Kentucky Derby," he says, "but I was such a bad jockey, that never came about." In 1957, the year he had carrots for Christmas, Cross turned to training and knocked about here and there, hitting the tracks with mostly cheap horses.
He started training for Foster, the president and senior partner of Durham Securities Corporation, a stockbrokerage in Toronto, 14 years ago. One of the first good things they did together was buy a daughter of Sunny, a well-bred son of the extraordinary American stallion, Princequillo, at a sale of yearling culls in 1972. Foster called her Mostly Sunny. She won six races and $30,162, running mostly in claimers, but Cross still speaks of her with reverence.
"She was the sorest, gamest thing I'd ever seen in my life," he says. "You name it, she had it. Knees, ankles. She was a cripple. Not worth nothing. Maybe $10,000, $12,000. She'd run a race and be so sore she'd lie down for three days. But a game hussy." Which is why, when Mostly Sunny could no longer go on. Cross suggested to Foster that he breed her. Today she makes up Foster's broodmare band of one. "That's it." Foster says. "My breeding establishment."