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Veteran trainer Nick Gonzalez is relishing success of thoroughbred Darren's Fortune

He's no longer the owner, but Darren's Fortune will forever have a place in trainer Nick Gonzalez's heart.

He's no longer the owner, but Darren's Fortune will forever have a place in trainer Nick Gonzalez's heart.

Gonzalez, a two-time Queen's Plate winner, purchased the strapping horse as a yearling shortly after exercise rider Darren Fortune died in a training accident at Woodbine Racetrack in September 2017. Gonzalez's late wife and assistant, Martha, was instrumental in naming the horse after Fortune, who worked 15 years for the Gonzalezes while also serving as an outrider at Woodbine.

Martha Gonzalez died in October 2020 after a two-year battle with cancer. She was just 58.

On Saturday, the Kentucky-bred colt won a season-opening 1 1/2-mile allowance optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. It was the horse's third straight victory and fourth in five starts dating back to last year.

Darren's Fortune has recorded seven career victories in 20 starts overall. His first two wins came in 2019 at Woodbine, where he was also second on three occasions in eight races there.

"I follow many of the horses we had that have been claimed or I've sold," Gonzalez said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he trains horses at Gulfstream Park. "I always have them in my thoughts and with a horse like Darren's Fortune, I bought him as a yearling so there's a little special thing that goes along with it.

"Naming that horse was really my late wife's doing, she wanted to name it after Darren to have a little piece of him in the barn. Darren's Fortune had his problems when he was a young horse, he had a little of this and a little of that but he always showed talent. It (three straight wins) really makes me happy, I'm so happy for the horse and the people who have him now."

Darren's Fortune is now owned by American Sam Almaraz and trained by Tom Van Berg. Van Berg wasn't aware of the story behind the horse's name until earlier this week.

"I've never been up to Woodbine and so unfortunately I didn't know Darren Fortune and why the horse was named that," Van Berg said. "It's always good to see the nice stories in horse racing.

"I don't think the general public understands how much work goes into this industry and how much goes into it trying to treat these animals as well as we can."

There's no doubt in Gonzalez's mind that his late wife is smiling given the horse's success.

"Oh, big time," said Gonzalez. who also trains Silent Poet, a Sovereign Award finalist as Champion Turf Male and Champion Male Sprinter. "We talk about that all the time at the barn.

"We think and talk about that stuff all the time. You know, you're sad but it gives you comfort too."

Gonzalez isn't the least bit surprised with the horse's winning ways or maturation into a solid marathon competitor.

"He was a big, strapping yearling and that's when he was still a baby," Gonzalez said. "I can only imagine how he is now that he's filled out and grown up.

"I always thought he'd get better with age and better with distance because that's the way he was bred and built. As he got older and sounder . . . he's finally found his right niche in life running long marathon races. And if the track happens to come up muddy it's even better for him."

Van Berg's first exposure to Darren's Fortune came in February 2020 at Oaklawn Park. Darren's Fortune finished fifth in a race there, one spot ahead of one of Van Berg's horses.

"My assistant was waiting for our horse to come off the track and he saw this big massive horse coming," Van Berg said. "He's rearing up, bucking and squealing and acting like he'd not even raced.

"My assistant said to me, 'Tom I kind of like this horse. Let's keep our eye on him.'"

Van Berg said while he figured he was getting a good horse, he's somewhat surprised with the success Darren's Fortune has achieved.

"We didn't anticipate him having this kind of success," Van Berg said. "He's just got stronger and stronger and stronger."

Particularly after Darren's Fortune recovered and recuperated after being claimed. But Van Berg still must load the horse into a trailer backwards.

"Probably in the past at some point he had trauma going into a stall, a trailer or something with a doorway because he's really tall," Van Berg said. "He likes to go into a stall now but still to this day when we load him into a horse trailer, we have to back him up the ramp and in.

"But once he healed up and got more comfortable in the barn, he became more confident and you really kind of see a more relaxed horse and one at ease with himself. He started getting stronger and enjoying gallops and not being so resentful when you took him off the track."

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it nearly impossible for trainers to accurately map future races for their horses. But on Dec, 5, Woodbine is scheduled to stage the Grade 3 Valedictory Stakes, a 1 1/2-mile event, and Van Berg liked the idea of Darren's Fortune returning to the Toronto track.

"Believe me, I'm all for that," he said. "If the timing worked out and he was doing good and we could make that trip, we'd try anything and everything we could to make that happen."

And Gonzalez would love to see the horse once again.

"That would be cool," he said. "And the way he's been running, that distance would suit him just great."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press