Hurley now winning in a new arena

His million-dollar colt racing in Florida Derby

March 09, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Bobby Hurley, All-America basketball player, had things pretty much his way during his college career.

But after spending $1 million last year for a 2-year-old racehorse, he called his wife, Leslie, with the news. Her reaction? She hung up on him.

"She wasn't pleased at the time," Hurley says. "But she's come around."

She came around after the million-dollar horse, Songandaprayer, won a Grade I stakes three weeks ago here at Gulfstream Park. Ridden by Edgar Prado, Songandaprayer led at every call on his way to a 2 1/2 -length victory in the $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Tomorrow, the stakes soar as Songandaprayer faces a dozen challengers in the $1 million Florida Derby at this sun-drenched track between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

A son of Unbridled's Song, who won the Florida Derby in 1996, Songandaprayer will not be the bettors' favorite in the 2001 version, but he won't be 18-1 as he was in the Fountain of Youth. He is 5-1 in the morning line, as handicappers remain skeptical about his chances of leading gate-to-wire again in a slightly longer race. The Fountain of Youth was 1 1/16 miles, the Florida Derby 1 1/8 miles.

Hurley and the colt's trainer, John Dowd, don't dispute that Songandaprayer had things his way in the Fountain of Youth. He broke sharply into an uncontested lead, relaxed under Prado and glided home.

"Edgar took advantage of a great situation," Dowd says. "But I think this colt has endless potential. I don't think he's as limited in how far he can go as everyone seems to believe he is."

Nor does Hurley.

"I've been an athlete all my life," Hurley says. "I think I can spot an athlete."

As a member of two national championship basketball teams at Duke, Hurley was considered one of the college game's greatest point guards. A first-round draft pick of the Sacramento Kings, he never got the chance to star as a professional. Early in his rookie season, Hurley was nearly killed in a traffic accident.

He underwent extensive rehabilitation, returned to the Kings, but eventually retired without a clear idea of what to do next. Although he is considering a job coaching high school basketball, he found the racing business a suitable substitute for last-second three-point shots.

"It was a good transition for me," he says.

Hurley became enamored with the sport during summer visits to beautiful Monmouth Park in his home state of New Jersey. He met Dowd, a former claiming trainer trying to upgrade his stable, and the relationship clicked.

Dowd has helped Hurley buy a handful of moderately priced horses at auctions since 1998. Dowd also helped Hurley with bidding on Songandaprayer, a horse they considered near perfection, at a sale of 2-year-olds in Florida.

"He helped me keep putting my hand up, but I did feel strongly about him," Hurley says of the striking colt. "When you step up and put up that kind of money, you'd better have a strong feeling about a horse."

Already named by his breeder, Songandaprayer caught their eye because of his speed, dazzling presence and unusual features. His white blaze practically spreads from eye-to-eye and spills into his nostrils. Both eyes are rimmed in white, giving them an unsettling, intimidating look.

Songandaprayer began his career in the spotlight. In his five-furlong June debut at Monmouth Park, confident bettors sent him off at 1-5, only to watch his five-length lead nearly evaporate at the wire. He came out of the race with ankle chips in both hind legs, underwent surgery and spent five months on the sideline.

Since returning to competition, he has won two of three races. In his one loss, the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, he dueled for the lead, but faded to fifth. That disappointing performance stamped him as a speed-crazed, undisciplined sprinter incapable of winning around two turns.

But in the Fountain of Youth, he relaxed on the lead and encountered no challenge in the stretch. As Hurley watched his horse cruise to victory, he cheered so loudly that he nearly became hoarse.

Asked how that compared with playing basketball, Hurley says: "It's definitely more nerve-racking watching him run, because you've got no control over what's going on. But it's the ultimate feeling. It stacks up with all those basketball moments."

Hurley spends mornings at the barn, reads racing publications and even walked his horses for Dowd as he learned the sport. He's collecting knowledge all the time, but he acknowledges his million-dollar bid for Songandaprayer came from a gut feeling gleaned from years of taking risks on the court.

"I took a lot of chances when I played," Hurley says. "If I felt something was the right thing to do, I took a chance. That's what I did with him."

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