Canada has a proud history in thoroughbred racing and boasts two native sons as winners of the famed Kentucky Derby. The most famous was 1964 winner Northern Dancer, who won the race in a then track record time. The other was born on the same farm and won the race in 1983. His name was Sunny’s Halo.
Sunny’s Halo was bred by David “Pud” Foster at the legendary Windfields Farm in Oshawa, Ontario. Foster boarded his small broodmare band there, and bred his mare Mostly Sunny to Windfields’ stallion Halo. The result was a striking chestnut colt with a wide blaze down his forehead, two long white stockings on his hind legs and another white sock on his right front foot. Foster would catch lighting in a bottle with this well made and powerful animal, and win the most cherished prize in North American racing.
Pud Foster was a successful stockbroker and had made enough money in the business to get into the sport he loved and start his small racing stable. The stable was trained by David Cross, who had suggested the mating of Mostly Sunny to Halo. Many of the horses in the stable were claimers, but occasionally an allowance or stakes horse did emerge. They never had a horse like Sunny’s Halo before.
Sunny’s Halo grew up on Windfields and was broken to saddle there. Cross took him late 1981 and wintered the colt at his farm. From the onset, Cross was excited about this new addition to his barn. The quality was evident and during his first lessons on the track, Sunny’s Halo displayed his competitive desire and speed. Perhaps this is the colt that could take David Cross to the promised land of training success. Dreams are born from colts such as this powerful chestnut.
The first impressions of Sunny’s Halo proved to be correct. He would author a wonderful juvenile campaign based out of Woodbine. He won his maiden race and then finished second in his first two stakes races, the Victoria and the Clarendon. After capturing the six furlong Colin Stakes, Sunny’s Halo went to Belmont and finished third in the Tremont Stakes. After returning home he would reel off the seven furlong Swynford, eight and a half furlong Grey Stakes and then took the nine furlong Coronation Futurity. He was named as the Sovereign Award winner as Champion Two Year Old Colt.
It seemed as if he got better as the races became longer in distance. Horses such as this give optimism to the connections of bigger wins to come. Sunny’s Halo went back to the U.S. for the Laurel Futurity and the Young America Stakes. He got trounced in both races and it was revealed as to why after the second humiliation.
Sunny’s Halo developed stress fractures in both front shins. The pain shooting up his legs were just too much to bear. Now both David Cross and Pud Foster had to let their dreams of Kentucky glory subside. The thing was though that they didn’t. They knew they had their horse of a lifetime and needed to roll their sleeves and get the colt fit again, for the first Saturday in May. “Derby Fever” struck them both.
The injuries would curtail on track training. Cross devoted himself to his champion, so much so that he appeared to neglect his other horses in the barn. The owners of those steeds began to pull them out and hired new trainers. By March of 1983, David Cross had only three horses in his care, all owned by Pud Foster.
Sunny’s Halo was taken to California and Cross had originally devised a plan to get Sunny’s Halo to Kentucky along the traditional route from the west coast circuit. The stress fractures certainly complicated matters, and time would be a factor. He had Sunny swim in order to keep his muscle tone, develop stamina. The everyday swimming regimen worked wonders for Sunny’s Halo by keeping him fit but relieving the pressure from his sore shins. The Derby however does not wait, and it was rapidly approaching.
The injuries had healed well enough by mid February for Sunny’s Halo to have his first light on track workout at Hollywood Park. Cross was taking his time and thought that the San Felipe Stakes on March 27 would be a good spot to begin the three year old campaign. However there seemed to be a rash of breakdowns on the sun baked tracks of the SoCal circuit which concerned Cross, so he implemented Plan “B”. Sunny’s Halo would make his long awaited three year old début on March 26 at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Cross shipped the colt to Hot Springs and entered him in the eight and a half furlong Rebel Handicap. Sunny’s Halo won the race by three lengths as the high weighted favourite, but the field he beat was pedestrian at best. The next race would be a bigger test.
The Arkansas Derby had prestige back then, but not at the traditional level as the other state derbies that lead to Kentucky. The Santa Anita and Florida Derbies, the Wood Memorial and the Blue Grass Stakes were the established traditional roads to Churchill Downs for three year olds. Although it was a grade one race, the Arkansas Derby was just beginning to emerge in 1983 as a viable avenue to the “Run for the Roses”. Only two other horses in history had won this race and the Kentucky Derby before. For the race Cross had secured the services of Eddie Delahoussaye to ride Sunny’s Halo.
Sunny’s Halo was back to his old self and won the Arkansas Derby emphatically by four lengths over the very good Woody Stephens trained Caveat. His winning time was 1:49 2/5. “It was a hell of a move. He got the last quarter in 24 and galloped out in 12” said David Cross after the race. “The track was deep and sloppy and the work tired him. My concern now is to keep him staying healthy and take him to Churchill”. The “Derby Fever “dream was back on.
It was a necessary call for Cross to consider taking Sunny’s Halo along a lesser utilised path to Kentucky. The team had to navigate around a few obstacles, and was forced to go through Arkansas instead of the usual California, Florida or New York routes. One more obstacle remained however. Sunny’s Halo developed a rash five days before the Derby. Although slight, the rash proved to be worrisome, Cross and his wife Patti and his lone employee John Sears stayed with Sunny’s Halo night and day at the Churchill Downs barn.
On May 7, 1983 Churchill Downs was packed with 134,000 fans for the Kentucky Derby. Sunny’s Halo wore saddle cloth number eight and went into the starting gate as the 5/2 second choice for the race. His Arkansas Derby form held firm as Sunny’s Halo captured the Kentucky Derby by two lengths over Desert Wine, with Caveat third. He became the second Canadian bred to win the greatest two minutes in sports.
Fans back in Canada were celebrating. A second Kentucky Derby winner from the Great White North was now being toasted by Sunny’s Halo’s countrymen in the Ontario Legislature. Pud Foster was besieged with offers to syndicate his colt to stud after the racing season. David Cross had lived the dream, and to make things sweeter, Patti had placed a large wager with a Vegas casino in the winter when Sunny’s Halo was listed at 100/1. Now she can cash the ticket.
The euphoria of the win was tempered two days later when Sunny’s rash reappeared. Cross thought the rash may have been caused by an allergic reaction to the wheat straw used in Kentucky. Sunny’s Halo arrived at Pimlico and in his first workout did seven furlongs in 1:24. Preakness rival trainer Dick Dutrow saw the work and said “One of the most sensational works I have ever seen. It ruined my breakfast”.
However the rash refused to go away so vet Robert McMartin of Toronto gave Sunny’s Halo a shot of Fulvicin and some ointment for Cross to apply daily on the affected areas. “It could be ringworm”, said David Cross. “He’ll look like hell for a while, but otherwise Sunny is fine”.
On May 20, 1983 Sunny’s Halo finished sixth in the Preakness Stakes. He was bumped coming out of the gate and did not take well to the sloppy track, finishing eleven lengths arrears. Foster decided that he would skip the Belmont Stakes and aim for the Queen’s Plate at home.
A change of plans occurred when it was announced that Sunny’s Halo would run in the Arlington Classic in Chicago before the Woodbine classic race. Sunny’s Halo was to be the top weight and carried three pounds more than Play Fellow and twelve pounds more than the rest of the field. The race didn’t go well for Sunny as he would end up in fourth place. The day was a sweltering one and Sunny’s Halo seemed to have injured himself on the far turn and did not have his usual finishing kick.
Sunny’s Halo was checked by vet Alex Harthill in Chicago who diagnosed an ankle injury that required rest to heal. Sadly for Pud Foster and all fans of Sunny’s Halo in Canada the Kentucky Derby winner would be ruled out of the Queen’s Plate. On a brighter side, Cross finally figured out what had caused the rash problem. Sunny’s Halo developed an allergic reaction to the white dye used colour the reigns. This dye had rubbed off and spread over the colt’s body when he was bathed.
Sunny’s Halo spent his rest and recuperation at local Get-A-Way Farm just north of Toronto. His return to the track a few weeks later made heads turn. Back to fitness and looking much better, the colt breezed five furlongs in 59 3/5 over the Woodbine track. The Travers Stakes was announced as his next target. However that plan would be altered when the team decided on the Whitney Handicap instead of the Haskell Invitational as the prep to the Travers.
In the Whitney, Sunny’s Halo did not have the services of Eddie Delahoussaye because the rider was also committed to Island Whirl. He chose to ride the on form five year old over Sunny’s Halo, which turned out be a wise call. Island Whirl won the Whitney, with Sunny’s Halo third. It was a good return to the races for the Derby winner, but Sunny’s Halo would subsequently miss the Travers due to a slight respiratory ailment. His next race came in the one mile Jerome Handicap at Belmont, run a week after the Travers Stakes.
Laffite Pincay had the ride in the Jerome, but the Canadian star could do no better than sixth. “It was too short for him. A mile around one turn against this bunch is not his game” said David Cross.
Three weeks later Sunny’s Halo was in Louisiana for the grade one Super Derby, a lucrative ten furlong race. He won the event with perhaps his finest performance of his career, defeating Play Fellow and My Habitony by ten lengths. His earnings from the race vaulted him past Glorious Song as the all time leading money winning Canadian bred horse, at the time.
Sunny’s Halo made one more start before his racing career ended. He finished second to grass specialist Mamaison in the nine furlong Volante Handicap. It was the only race Sunny’s Halo ran on grass. Because he did not start a race in his native country during the year, Sunny’s Halo was ineligible for the Sovereign Horse of the Year Award. He was given a special Sovereign Award however, to honour his Kentucky Derby victory.
Foster agreed to syndicate Sunny’s Halo for a reported seven million dollars and stand him at Domino Stud in Kentucky. “He’s all man this horse. He will make a fine stallion” said David Cross. Many breeders agreed with him and sent some good quality mares to Sunny’s court. His success however did not meet expectations.
Sunny’s Halo was not a flop as a stallion. He got thirty-nine stakes winners from nine hundred and ninety foals in his breeding career. This is only a 4% strike rate. He was sold to Double S Farm in Texas later to finish his stud career. There were some good ones sired by Sunny’s Halo, such as Woodward Stakes winner Dispersal, Wood Memorial winner Irgun, and Santa Maria Handicap winner Race The Wild Wind, grade one stakes winners all.
Race The Wild Wind produced group one stakes winner King Charlemagne, while her daughter Chasethewildwind produced Breeder’s Cup Dirt Mile winner Albertus Maximus, and Champagne Stake winner Daredevil. Another daughter of Race The Wild Wind is Chasetheragingwind, the dam of grade one Forego Stakes winner Here Come Ben.
While Sunny’s Halo did not leave a big impression on the breed at stud, he did leave a big impression to those that saw him run. Double S Farm was sold to land developers three years after Sunny’s Halo died from an apparent stroke in 2003. He was buried on the farm by owner Billy Hanna. When horse racing fan Rita Nugent learned of the redevelopment of the land, she contacted Hanna about Sunny’s grave. “A horse like him deserves a final place of rest” Rita said.
Nugent also contacted David Hooper, the executive director of the Texas Thoroughbred Association. Hooper then started talks with the Kentucky Derby Museum. An idea came that the remains of Sunny’s Halo would be exhumed from the grave on Double S before the bulldozers destroyed the site, and would then be transferred to the Kentucky Derby Museum. Sunny’s Halo would then be interred at the museum for his final resting place. He became the fourth Derby winner to be interred at the Museum after Broker’s Tip, Swaps, and Carry Back.
To Canadian race fans, Sunny’s Halo holds a special place. The second Canadian bred winner of the Kentucky Derby gave his countrymen the thrill ride of a roller coaster. There were extreme highs, and lows, but above all else he was a source of pride, for a country that has fewer than ten percent of the foals born each year than in the U.S.
Sunny’s Halo was beautiful specimen of a race horse. He was a Canadian hero.
(Photo courtesy of Domino Stud)