BOZICH | From Kentucky Derby winner to hot walker -- the long ride of David Cross
At 83, David Cross is the oldest living trainer of a Kentucky Derby winner -- and 35 years after he scored with Sunny's Halo, Cross is back at Churchill Downs as a hotwalker.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- You can find David Cross at Barn 40 on the Churchill Downs backstretch, working the shed-row with Prissy, Henry, Bo Peep and Jinks Fires.
Prissy is a hen.
Henry is a rooster.
Bo Peep is a 3-year-old filly who will run in a Grade III stakes race Friday.
Jinks Fires is a 77-year-old Churchill Downs training fixture who doesn’t have a horse to saddle in the Kentucky Derby or Oaks.
And, who is David Cross?
Just a guy who walks horses in the Fires' stable who has an arrangement that he can show up after 8 a.m. because his eyesight isn’t always the greatest. His knees ache. He likes to joke that’s because he wore hand-me-down shoes as a kid. Regardless, on the mornings those knees ache, Cross does not walk horses.
Oh, yeah. There’s another quality I need to mention about Cross:
He is 83, the oldest living trainer of a Kentucky Derby winner. He scored with Sunny’s Halo in 1983.
There is video evidence, complete with appearances from Howard Cosell and Jim McKay. Roll the video and you’ll see Sunny’s Halo handling a talented 20-horse field that included runners trained by Woody Stephens, D. Wayne Lukas and Laz Barrera.
He did it by two lengths. He did it as the first Arkansas Derby winner to win the Kentucky Derby. He did it as the second-betting choice behind Marfa (trained by Lukas).
He did it after Cross and his wife, Patty, each invested $200 on Sunny’s Halo at 100-to-1 odds in the future book. Cross said they placed the wagers at the same time on the same day from two locations so bookmakers wouldn’t diminish the odds. David Cross bet his $200 in Tijuana, Mexico while Patty bet in Las Vegas.
They cashed $40,000, in addition to their cut of the $426,000 first-prize money the colt won.
Inevitable question: Why is an 83-year-old guy who trained a Kentucky Derby winner walking horses at Churchill Downs?
"I like to eat," Cross said. "Social Security is not that much."
He was joking. Mostly.
Sunny’s Halo finished sixth in the Preakness. He skipped the Belmont. He finished fourth in the Arlington Classic and then retired after winning the Louisiana Super Derby.
David Cross never had another horse like him. Nothing close. Racing carried him into the winner’s circle on May 7, 1983 but there were more days when the game left him up the track.
"Sometimes it hurts," Cross said. "You wonder why you can’t be doing the same thing. But then I realize at my age you get older and things happen. But I can tell you I wouldn’t be capable of training horses right now."
Cross gave up nearly all of the 35 horses in his public stable to concentrate on getting Sunny’s Halo to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Cross did not have the sweet talking skills to convince owners to help him rebuild his racing stock.
Less than a year after the Derby victory, Patty Cross died. She was fighting cancer when they came to Louisville but kept it private. She encouraged David to chase his Derby dream because you might only get one shot.
"No guts, no glory is what Patty always told me," Cross said.
“I was happy for my wife. My wife was dying of cancer. If it hadn’t had been for her, believe it or not, I would have never gone to the Derby. I would have been content to keep the horse in Canada and run him in the Queen’s Plate. He was a Canadian-bred.”
Patty Cross loved to wager. She loved to entertain, performing as a back-up singer to Bobby Darrin.
Patty Cross was so confident that her husband and Sunny’s Halo would deliver that she ordered a diamond-crusted ring to celebrate the colt’s Derby victory a week before the race. David Cross still wears it on his right hand.
Cross ran afoul of the racing stewards in Illinois because they determined Cross had given Sunny’s Halo a decongestant within 72 hours of a race. Cross argued that he was treating a skin condition and that he had stopped administering the medication before the 72-hour window.
His training license was suspended. The legal bills were considerable. He trained quarter horses. He returned to thoroughbreds. He was dealing with the grudge when he brought Quintana, his only other Derby starter, to the race in 1991. He finished sixth.
His career racing record shows that Cross trained from 1976-through-2012, winning 328 races for more than $8.7 million. Good, but not extraordinary. Not for a guy who won the Kentucky Derby when he was 48 years old.
He was certain he was finished with the game, living on a farm outside Lexington.
But David Cross was not finished with the game. Last fall he decided he wanted to return to the track. He loved the smells, sounds and rhythm of the track.
He was willing to walk horses, which is as close as you can get to Racing 101 in the race track job market. That’s like asking Eddie Sutton to fold towels or Lloyd Carr to wash socks.
Cross was fine with walking horses. He drove to Arkansas and teamed with Fires, who invited him to Churchill Downs. Cross plans to remain the entire spring meet. He’ll probably return to the Kentucky Derby Museum, where Sunny’s Halo is buried.
So there he is at Barn 40, leading young horses around the shed-row less than 150 yards away from where Sunny’s Halo was stabled in Barn 41 just 35 years ago.
“I like to be around the horses,” Cross said. “I just do what I’m told. Jinks is the kind of person I’d work for, for nothing. Honest to God.”
That’s David Cross, still chasing that Kentucky Derby dream.
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