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Meet early Derby favourite

No bull: Horse who dominated Downs back for shot at big one

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Give a man a monster two-year-old horse like Balooga Bull to ride and he's going to come back for more.

All it took was one ride for British jockey Paul Nolan to pull up stakes and move north from Canterbury Downs in Minneapolis, to Assiniboia Downs, which opens for another season on Sunday at 1 p.m.

Last year, the No. 1 rider at Texas's Sam Houston Race Park in 2010, got together here with Balooga Bull to win the Osiris Stakes.

"It was a lot of fun," said Nolan, who boasts 1,366 career wins for $15,731,805 in earnings. "I came up here not knowing the horse, but I watched one of his races and I mock rode him. During our race, I was supposed to drop in behind and let them all go, but he broke so darn good that day, that I just set him on the front and he relaxed. He's the kind of horse that makes you look like you know what you're doing."

Of course, Nolan's handiwork didn't go unnoticed by Ardell Sayler, who won his 10th trainers' title last year, especially when the Brit rode another horse of his, U R Burnin Daylite, to victory in the Golden Boy Stakes.

"I asked Paul to come back and ride," said Sayler. "Last year he won all three rides for me. The third was on a horse named Sea Webb."

Balooga Bull, now a three-year-old, wasn't Nolan's only reason for coming north. "Canterbury was a low year for me. I had come back from injury the year before, and I wasn't getting as much of the quality horses. I had been there since 1990, and I needed a change of scenery."

On Thursday, as he announced the start of the 2012 season, race announcer and Downs' CEO Darren Dunn touted Balooga Bull, who won all four of his races as a two-year-old, including the Winnipeg Futurity and the Graduation Stakes, as the early favourite to win the $75,000 Manitoba Lotteries Derby on Aug. 6.

Sayler, however, was cautious. "We'll let him do the talking for himself," he said.

On Sunday, railbirds will need to pay special attention to their programs. To say there's been a changing of the guard, is an understatement. Four of last year's top-10 riders are gone, including leading rider, David Lopez (72 wins), who has moved on to Finger Lakes, N.Y., with his partner and horse owner/trainer Lisa Hebdon. Mark Anderson (38 wins), who rode Hammer's Bullet to victory in the Manitoba Lotteries Derby, has moved on to Emerald Downs in Washington. Also gone are Janine Stianson (32 wins) and Juan Crawford (19 wins).

On the positive side, the talent coming in promises to measure up to the high-level competition of three-time leading rider Rohan Singh (67 wins), as well as young riders Tyrone Nelson (40 wins), Gustavo Ortiz (29 wins), Jennifer Reid and Chavion Chow (20 wins each).

Nolan, who was born in Rugeley, England, takes nothing for granted. "You never go in overestimating or underestimating the opposition. You just go in and do your job. I've known Rohan a long time and we are good friends. He's a good rider."

There is another young rider making his debut Sunday in 18-year-old Tyler Kaplan of Norco, Calif., and he appears to have just enough chutzpah to try and knock off the veterans.

As an apprentice at Yapavai Downs at Prescott, Ariz., in 2010, Kaplan rode 75 winners, earning $494,237. In 2011 he won 13 times, but still earned $196,694. So far this year he has six wins and $57,637 in earnings, but feels confident he can build on that.

"My agent Mike Pearce had my book in 2010 at Yapavai, and we did very good out there," said Kaplan. "We kind of stayed in touch after that. He told me about Assiniboia Downs last year, but I didn't have my passport in time, so I had to wait another year to come out."

The kid's hear to win, but the cocky young gun says he's also here to learn. "Yapavai shut down last year and so I had to kind of scramble to northern California, but every track you go to is a new challenge. It is a step up, you have to work hard, and nobody knows who you are, so you have to try and make a name for yourself. It is tough everywhere you go."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2012 C5

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