8 years later, trainer Cross can't shake bitter feeling

JOHN EISENBERG

May 02, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He will never get over it. Never. The humiliation of David Cross was so complete that, eight years later, he still goes to sleep with it every night and awakens with it every morning. That he is back at the Kentucky Derby with a horse makes for a pleasant little comeback, and don't misunderstand, he will settle for it. But to give the story a maudlin cast is inappropriate. He is a bitter man.

"What I went through, it's just something that stays with you," he said yesterday in front of his barn at Churchill Downs. "When you give your life to a sport like I did, and I started galloping horses when I was 8, almost 50 years ago, when you give your life like that and then go through the living hell I did, you just can't forget it."

He is smallish, wears wire-frame glasses and speaks in a sharp-cut Canadian accent, and what happened to him is essentially what happened to Pete Rose. He made it to the pinnacle, then took a big fall. He won the Derby in 1983 with Sunny's Halo, but before the summer was out, his trainer's license had been revoked. Within three months of his greatest achievement, he was suspended from training anywhere in the United States. All the way up, all the way down.

It all started with a drug test Sunny Halo's took barely a month after the Derby win, at the Arlington Classic in Chicago. The test showed traces of a decongestant that can't be given within 72 hours of a race. Sunny's Halo had a skin condition Cross was treating -- it had made news at the Derby -- but Cross said there had been no drugs given within 72 hours of the race.

He had been a trainer for 26 years at that point without gathering one strike for lawlessness, and, due in part to his clean record, the track stewards gave him a mere five-day suspension. But an effort was being made to clean up racing in Illinois, the result of one too many scandals, and the state racing commission reopened the case two months later. Bang, zoom, goodbye license.

"They needed a scapegoat, and they got one," Cross said. "What bigger scapegoat could there be than a Derby winner? The hardest part was that 26 years of running a clean operation, doing things right and paying all my bills on time -- that didn't matter. They just lowered the hammer on me."

He was banned for 10 months and spent another year fighting the ruling in court, at an enormous cost. At a time when he could have been capitalizing on his Derby win to build his stable, as most Derby-winning trainers do, Cross watched his racing life fall apart. His owners jumped to other trainers. He had to sell off most of his assets, including half his breeding shares of Sunny's Halo, to pay for his defense.

On top of it all, his wife died of cancer after a long fight. Then many of the investments he'd made went bad, blowing what he calls "a whole lot of money." His close friend and fellow trainer Wayne Lukas just shook his head yesterday: "David Cross has had more troubles than most of us."

Cross almost quit racing and moved to Mexico. He felt cheated. Born in the shadow of a track in British Columbia, he had given himself up to racing at age 8. He was riding at bush tracks by 11, moved to Montana to ride the rough circuit there, then took out his trainer's license at 20. To win the Derby after such a climb, then to have his name so sullied -- "just devastating," he said.

He dabbled at training quarter horses while suspended, but it didn't work out and a man needs money to eat, so, grudgingly, Cross got back into training thoroughbreds in 1985, at Santa Anita. The owners of Sunny Halo's matched him with an owner named Gary Garber, and Cross has trained Garber's stable of a dozen or so horses ever since. The money isn't great, but not bad.

Cross wasn't thinking of the Derby when he claimed a Lukas-trained horse for $50,000 after the sixth race at Santa Anita on Feb. 1. "I just wanted a good 3-year-old in my barn," he said. The horse's name was Quintana, and he has since finished no worse than fourth in four starts, including the Arkansas Derby. He will be a long shot Saturday, but already is worth much more than the $50,000 he cost.

"I was driving downtown with [the Garbers] last night and I told them to enjoy [making the Derby], because it doesn't happen often," Cross said. "I know I didn't enjoy it last time even though I won. My wife was so sick. I just didn't handle [Derby week] well. I'm trying to enjoy it this time. It's nice. I'm not going to be doing this much longer, and to make it back before I quit is a good feeling."

The markings of his life are set. He still wears a large, gold Sunny Halo's ring that his wife gave him after the 1983 Derby -- she had it made before the race, in a remarkable fit of presience -- and drapes old, orange Sunny's Halo blankets around his horses. He also has remarried (his fourth wife), and although he said he would retire right now if he had enough money, life is not bad.

It will never be what it could have been, though, and he knows it, and beneath the surface there is a palpable sadness there, a sadness that comes from having been let down by the game he loves. "I won't ever get over what happened to me," he said. "I just won't."

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