When he was young, "and before gourmet food got the best of me," Happy Alter was an amateur boxer. "Just for the sport of it," he said. "Just as a hobby."
About 30 years, 80 pounds and millions of words later, Alter is preparing a horse for the fight of his life.
Alter, 45, trains Jolie's Halo, a once-beaten colt who is a contender for Saturday's $750,000 Pimlico Special, the fourth race in the American Championship Racing Series.
In his most recent start, Jolie's Halo finished third in the April 13 Oaklawn Handicap, his first career defeat in seven starts.
Before that, the late-blooming colt impressed his trainer so much that when Alter was told Jolie's Halo still hadn't run against Unbridled and Farma Way, he agreed those other horses might be the best in the world but added, "Jolie's Halo might be from another planet."
Losses tend to muffle the bravado, and that has happened to Alter, to a degree. But he still can talk and clown with the best of them -- he put boxing gloves on yesterday morning to approach Unbridled's trainer, Carl Nafzger -- and his confidence in Jolie's Halo, owned by Arthur Appleton, has not waned.
"I respect this group of horses," Alter said yesterday, after Jolie's Halo worked six furlongs in 1 minute, 11 1/5 seconds. "There is a tremendous amount of talent here. These are not only the survivors of their3-year-old years, but the very best survivors."
Jolie's Halo is one of seven horses expected to run in the 1 3/16-mile Pimlico Special, which is being run for the fourth time since a 30-year hiatus. The others are Unbridled, Summer Squall, Farma Way, Festin, Silver Survivor and Reputed Testamony.
"My horse is doing very well," said Alter. "He seems to like this track a lot. He has adjusted well to his surroundings, and he's ready to go."
Alter quickly grew bored of beingserious.
"When's the Black Eyed Susan [Stakes]?" he asked. "That's what he's really waiting for. He's looking for some of those fillies to ship in so he can get a date with them next year."
You provide a racing topic, and Alter can address it. Here are some examples:
* The American Championship Racing Series: "If the Breeders' Cup is to racing what the Super Bowl is to football, then you can compare this to the World Series. Every game isimportant."
* Older horses: "Your great actors and singers, like Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis and Bruce Springsteen, they didn't win all their awards early in their career. They had to mature and develop."
* Good breeding: "A trainer can't do magic. He needs material to start with. It's like seat belts. Seat belts save lives. Somebody gets out of an accident unhurt without their seat belt on, that's an exception. Look at all the good horses in this race. They're all well-bred. So you hear about some ill-bred winning a big race? That's the exception. The rule is, you've got to have something to start with."
* The late development of Jolie's Halo (a son of the top sire, Halo), who didn't make his first start until last October: "He had chronic shin problems. When I first tried breezing him, he wouldn't breeze. The next time, I put blinkers on him for the first and only time, and a $12,000 claimingfilly stuck her head in front of him at the wire. That's when my crew said, 'You're too high on this horse.' I said, 'You think so? You'll be reading about this horse.' After that second time, he looked like a teen-age boy who'd just been on his first date. He'd learned it was going to be fun."
* His friendship with former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali: "I got to be friends with him 25 years ago, when we met at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach. I saw him about a year ago, and he remembered all my kids' names. We reminisced. I always like to compare training horses to fighters -- you don't leave your race on the track in the morning, and you don't leave your fight in the gym."
Until Alter shipped in with Jolie's Halo about two weeks ago, he had not been to Pimlico since sending out No More Flowers to an eighth-place finish as a 32-1 shot in the 1987 Preakness.
In the meantime, Alter, whose home training base is on the southern Florida circuit, had his share of success. He saddled Frosty the Snowman to a world record (1:44 4/5) for 1 1/8 miles on turf, but the best horse of his career is Jolie's Halo, who has won $630,200.
"There'll be no easy lead in this race," he said. "There's too much quality."
After winning the Donn Handicap, first race of the American Championship Racing Series, Jolie's Halo won the Gulfstream Park Handicap, then lost his unbeaten status at Oaklawn Park. Alter said he has been careful to "preserve the longevity" of the colt and get him to the Breeders' Cup this fall in top form.
"The only reason I'd run this horse too much," he said, "would be greed, which I'd never be guilty of."
And no one would ever deem him guilty of being a bore.
Pimlico Special lineup
The lineup for the Pimlico Special on Saturday (horses listed in order of Marty McGee's odds, not preference):
... ... ... ... .. .. ... ... ... .. ... .. McGee's.. .. McGee's
Horse... .... Jockey..... Wt. Trainer.. .... comment... ... odds
Unbridled.. Craig Perret 122 Carl Nafzger. Seeks Pimlico revenge
Summer Squall Pat Day... 120 Neil Howard... Preakness champ's back 5-2
Jolie's Halo.Robin Platts 119. Happy Alter..One solitary defeat 4-1
Farma Way..Gary Stevens..119..Wayne Lukas...Team won it in 1990 9-2
Festin..Eddie Delahoussaye.116.Ron McAnally..Seeking repeat upset 5-1
Silver Survivor.No rider.114.Glenn Hild..Picking tough spots 20-1
Reputed Testamony.Andrea Seefeldt.112.Richard Hemmings..
Lone Maryland runner 20-1