Maryland trainer Chris Grove grew up in Frederick, lives in Frederick and stables his horses at the Bowie Training Center. His favorite race has always been the Preakness. Saturday, one of his horses, Norman Asbjornson, is about to make Grove's longest-held dream -- a dream so unimaginable he never really believed in its possibility -- come true.
Saturday, Grove will see Norman, as he calls him, go to post in The 136th Preakness Stakes.
"Did I ever think I'd have a Preakness horse?" Grove said, taking on the role of self interviewer. "Did I think I'd ever have one? Ever?"
Grove is the son of Maryland steward and former jockey Phil Grove. His dad went to post 26,901 times and had a lot of success, winning 3,991 races in his career. But he never rode a horse in the Preakness. And Chris Grove, Maryland's top trainer at Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park last year, has been training for 14 years. Until now, he'd never had a Preakness horse.
"I come from humble beginning, and I never thought I'd have one," he said. "I never thought I was the kind of trainer who would have one, because to have a horse in the Preakness they have to be accomplished by May of their 3-year-old season. At that age, mine are usually just getting geared up because I don't push my 2-year-olds. But as a 2-year-old in training, Norman told me he wanted to be pushed."
Grove said the horse told him with resiliency during workouts, by how easily he would do things and how strong his mind was. Norman, bright and beautiful, couldn't get enough training.
Still, sitting in his tiny office, surrounded by white concrete walls, Grove is more nervous than excited.
"We've got to get through this week," he said, watching every horse's movement as it passed his open door. "They're fragile animals. I don't' want my hopes up too high. We saw before the Kentucky Derby how horses can get sick or injured."
About 90 minutes away at the Fair Hill Training Center, another Maryland trainer, Graham Motion, is an example of the complexities of the game. His best Derby horse, Toby's Corner came up lame days before the Derby after an ordinary workout. But Motion, as everyone knows now, had an unbelievable backup, Animal Kingdom, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby in his first race on dirt.
There are no backups here. In fact, Grove's having a Preakness horse is so unlikely, it even caught the Maryland Jockey Club's director of racing, Georganne Hale, by surprise.
"Horses are in short supply here," Hale said. "And I try to keep all my horses home. They stable here [for free]; we want them to run here. And I'm hearing about this horse, who is having his second or third start out of town and I've never seen the horse. I sent Chris a note saying we'd appreciate it if he's using one of our stalls, that he run here.
Of course, I didn't know he was a Preakness-caliber horse. Honestly, I didn't have any races for him to run in except the Preakness. I saw him work here last week for the first time and he's beautiful."
Norman is the largest 3-year-old in Grove's barn and very muscular. He is also a bit of a loner, said his trainer, and, at times, has focus issues, something Grove was working on with him at the starting gate Wednesday at Bowie. After a strong second-place run at the Gotham Stakes in New York, he was late out of the gate at the Wood Memorial. Still, he came on from last for a strong fourth-place finish.
"Going into the Wood, we thought he wanted to go to the front exclusively," Grove said. "But he was shuffled to last in the Wood and came on nicely. He's more versatile than we thought. We're giving him as much time in the gate as we can so he'll relax. He looks comfortable now, but he knows he's not racing. We'll just keep bringing him here and hope it carries over."
Grove met Thomas McClay, one of Norman's owners, for the first time at the Timonium sale last year and hit it off. When McClay suggested to his partner, Harry Nye, that they send some horses Grove's way, Nye agreed. Norman was the first horse they sent.
"What a pleasure working with Chris has been," Nye said. "He's the real deal. He doesn't think he's a big somebody. He's not pompous. He tells you the truth, and he calls you back when you call him. A lot of trainers don't."
Grove, whose stable has grown to more than 70 horses (55 of them at Bowie), has a lot of admirers. One of them is Nick Zito, who is bringing Derby favorite Dialed In to the Preakness. It turns out Zito tried to buy Norman in March and called Grove. Though Zito couldn't make a deal for the horse, he did get to know Grove and his family through their conversations and learned about the Maryland trainer's son Noah, who was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left leg in 2004.
Noah, though not really interested in horses, has been involved with the sport since his birth.