Trainer Grove puts roots down in familiar ground

Son of longtime jockey takes `center stage' at Maryland Million

Horse Racing

October 12, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

Chris Grove wasn't supposed to be at Bowie Training Center directing the care of 40 horses. He wasn't supposed to be worrying about the well-being of thoroughbreds who could do everything right and still break your heart.

He wasn't supposed to be a trainer with nine horses in tomorrow's Maryland Million Day races, the showcase program for Maryland-based sires and their offspring.

His dad, Phil Grove, a longtime rider in the region with 3,991 wins and now a Maryland track steward, was going to prevent all that.

He had seen his son, as early as age 5, hanging over the rail on the front stretch at the tracks where he was riding. Young Chris knew every horse's pedigree and every jockey who rode them.

The sight charmed and worried his parents, who eventually spent $50,000 on tuition at Lehigh University so their son could major in philosophy and expand his interests.

"You always want something better for your kids," said Phil Grove. "He's a very intelligent boy. We thought his talent would carry in a different direction."

Chris Grove, 38, walked through his barn recently on an early morning, giving directions, checking on his Maryland Million entries, which include three morning-line favorites - Five Steps ($300,000 Classic), Lexi Star ($200,000 Ladies) and Silmaril ($150,000 Distaff).

Silmaril, 6, is the veteran star of the stable. She is the daughter of Diamond and is 18th on the Maryland-bred all-time earnings list with $946,153. A win tomorrow would put her over $1 million and in the company of Docent, Countus In, Mz. Zill Bear and Safely Kept as the only three-time winners of a Maryland Million race.

"I'm very lucky right now to have Silmaril," Grove said as he stopped at her stall. "She's been on top of her game for 3 1/2 years and taken us everywhere we wanted to go. Lexi gives everything every time out. Five Steps, who hasn't lost since coming back from [a 20-month] injury layoff, and some of the others have never trained any better. Well, I feel really good about them.

"Saturday I hope to get really lucky."

Grove can recall seeing his dad falling off horses, breaking bones, spending too many nights in hospitals and realize just how much his parents didn't want him to be in the business.

"Keeping me away from the track just made me want it more," he said as Five Steps headed for his last work before tomorrow's Classic. "It wasn't reverse psychology. They really didn't want me to wind up here, but that's all I've ever wanted to do.

"They knew that you could work and work and do everything right and that the horse could do everything right and then you still have to get lucky, and even when you get lucky it doesn't always work out."

But for Chris Grove, much has worked out. He said he started by teaching himself to ride and was one of the top two jockeys in the Amateur Riders Club of America for three years based on its point system. That experience and galloping horses for trainer Donald Barr helped give him the tools he needed to recognize and train a good horse.

Then a young woman came along named Rachael. He married her 11 years ago, and he said she "pushed" him into training. Within three starts, a horse named Running Babbit won, and Grove was on his way.

When Virginian William Harris, who owns Five Steps and four other Maryland Million nominees, decided to send him his horses, it was the boost he needed to start building a stable.

It has been an exhilarating ride, and yet Grove said it isn't much different today from when he started. "You take what you're dealt," he said.

Everything hasn't been perfect. His son, Noah, was diagnosed with cancer when he was 4 years old and had a leg amputated. But through that ordeal the family found out how much its extended racetrack family cared about its own, when a benefit to help the Groves with Noah's expenses was held a few years ago. Around the track, Phil Grove said, everyone knows about Noah and what the boy and his family have been through.

In just three weeks, Noah Grove, now 8, will be returning to Georgetown Hospital for his three-year scan. If all the tests go well, he will be officially declared cancer-free.

Phil Grove smiles at the thought of his grandson, whom he describes as an inspiration for anyone who meets him, and an extension "of both myself and Chris."

Phil Grove didn't open any doors for his son but recognizes this is where Chris is supposed to be. He admires the work ethic he sees every day when his son is willing to get up at 3:30 a.m. to make the drive from Frederick to Bowie. He admires the way Chris has taken care of his family. And he admires the way he has persevered to arrive with some of the most talented horses on tomorrow's racing card.

"For years, people would point him out as Phil Grove's son," the former jockey said. "Then he was Noah Grove's father. He never got the limelight. But Saturday will be center stage for him. He's got the winning bullets."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

Maryland Million Day

What: Maryland's day at the races, honoring Maryland sires and their offspring.

When: Tomorrow

Time: First post at 12:15 p.m.

Where: Laurel Park

TV: Ch. 54 and MASN, 4 p.m.

Outlook: In its 22nd year, Maryland Million Day is the oldest event of its kind and has spurred the birth of similar programs in 25 other states. This year, the Maryland Million program will dispense purses totaling more than $1.7 million on the 12-race card. The highlight of the afternoon is the $300,000 Maryland Million Classic for 3-year-olds and up over 1 3/16 miles on Laurel's main, dirt track. This year, the race features two past winners, Due (2006) and Play Bingo (2005), and 2005 runner-up Five Steps, who is unbeaten since returning from a 20-month injury layoff. Also among the 10 entries is Frank The Barber, a primed 3-year-old who has been shipped in from California's Santa Anita Park.

Online: For more go to baltimoresun.com/horseracing

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