One of the biggest problems trainer Ardell Sayler and jockey Paul Nolan have with their monster horse Balooga Bull is his finicky appetite.
They guessed right in the run-up to Sunday afternoon as the two-time Assiniboia Downs Horse of the Year -- and last year's $75,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby champion -- held off a late challenge by Pleasant Closing to win the $30,000, six-furlong Free Press Stakes by a nose.
Trying to keep this four-year-old on a regular eating schedule has the two of them tearing their hair out.
"It's kind of a mental thing with this horse," said Sayler, a 10-time leading trainer at the Downs. "Back home on the farm (Rapid City, S.D.), he eats all the time, and just about anything you give him. Then you bring him to the race track and he falls apart. He just quits eating, and starts pouting."
While the win was satisfying, Sayler says his life would be a lot less stressful if Balooga Bull would settle down and start eating properly. "We did change some things around with him this time out, but his biggest thing is eating. Everything's got to be just right. You can't put nothing with his grain."
Asked if he has him on a special diet, Sayler shot back, "Sure we've been giving him a specific diet. It's whatever he'll eat. He's just not a very good eater, that's the problem with him. We have to be on top of him all the time."
Nolan, has another theory. "I just let him be himself this time," he said, referring back to a race on May 29 when Pleasant Closing beat him by a neck over five-and-a-half furlongs. "He was a little sluggish that time. I know it sounds weird, but we had him in a stall in the middle of the barn and it wasn't his usual stall. I told Ardell, 'I think he's depressed,' because he's in the wrong stall. Then I said 'just humour me for a week,' and we put him back in the stall where he was winning last year. Well, his attitude perked up and he was happy again. He knows he's No. 1, and he wants to be treated like No. 1."
Sunday, the Bull left no doubt about his No. 1 status. Shaking off an early challenge by Ran The Man, he began pulling away as they headed into the top of the turn, a full length in front, with Pleasant Closing beginning to close the gap.
When they hit the stretch, Balooga Bull held a length-and-a-half edge over Pleasant Closing and Ran The Man, but halfway down the stretch, it became a two-horse sprint to the wire with Balooga Bull taking it in a photo finish.
Nolan knew he was in for a battle with Pleasant Closing, but at the same time, he said you can't dwell on the other horses in the race. "You've got to ride your race, but you can't go out there thinking you're going to win. You've got to believe you're going to win.
Sayler said they had to run a little harder than they wanted to. "He (Ran The Man) made us go a little faster on the front end, so we had to use him up a little more. That made it easier for Pleasant Closing to come and get us."
He said that in their earlier loss to Pleasant Closing, the Murray Duncan-trained horse was coming off the winter at Hawthorne Race Track in Chicago. "We weren't quite fit yet (Balooga Bull didn't race over the winter). But we came back battling this time. I think you'll see from this race on out, he'll just keep on getting better."
Nolan, who Sayler brought up here last year from Canterbury Downs specifically to ride the Bull, said he is one of his favourite horses ever. "I've won more stakes races on him than any other horse I've ever ridden. I gallop him every day. He's just very special.
"I'm very proud of him today."