ARCADIA, Calif. - Some 20 years after winning the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens, Denis Savard is hoping to hoist another prestigious trophy this weekend.
The Hockey Hall of Famer owns a share of four-year-old gelding Private Zone, the 3-1 morning-line favourite in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita. The ownership group, known as Good Friends Stable, also includes former jockey Rene Douglas.
A racing fan since he was a teenager, Savard first met Douglas at Arlington Park near Chicago when he played for the Blackhawks.
During his career, Douglas amassed more than 3,500 wins, winning the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies with Dreaming of Anna and the 1996 Belmont Stakes with Editor's Note. He was leading rider at Arlington Park six times.
But on May 23, 2009, all of that would end when a spill at Arlington Park left Douglas paralyzed from the waist down.
As Douglas lay in the hospital, his riding career abruptly halted, Savard and the four other men that make up Good Friends Stable came to his side.
"When his accident happened, we all rallied together as friends and tried to help him out as much as we can," said Savard. "It can't take the pain away that he has suffered since, but we try to keep his spirit up."
After Douglas was released from the hospital, the group of friends decided to invest in racehorses. Hoping it would give him a sense of purpose, they put Douglas in charge of selecting the horses.
He found Private Zone in his native Panama. But the horse was no star at first. He had an erratic running style—sometimes he would stop in his tracks mid-race, sometimes he would win easily.
But where some saw a crazy horse, Douglas saw talent, and Savard and the group trusted their friend.
"I mean why not?" said Savard.
The group purchased Private Zone for $80,000. He's won over $500,000 in his career.
"It's not like he wants to buy a horse every day," Savard said of Douglas. "He's got a good eye for it and a good touch for it."
Private Zone isn't the first horse for Good Friends. In 2010, the group bought Ontario-bred Golden Moka, who had been undefeated in Panama and went on to win the Prince of Wales Stakes, the second jewel of the Canadian Triple Crown.
"These are two horses that he picked for us," said Savard. "Amazing."
Private Zone, the Ontario-bred son of Macho Uno, comes into the Sprint with back-to-back wins in the Pirate's Bounty Stakes at Del Mar and the Vosburgh Invitational Stakes at Belmont.
California-based trainer Doug O'Neill saddles Private Zone on Saturday and has worked through the horse's kinks.
"Through his maturity, and us taking him in company and just giving him a bunch of good experiences over and over, he's just broken through it," said O'Neill. "I think he's got a huge chance."
For the 52-year-old Savard, the journey to get to the Breeders' Cup feels as good as winning.
"Rene has suffered so much in the last few years," he said. "If that particular minute and a half and the whole day and whole weekend will take some of the pain away that he suffered, that would mean a lot to all of us."
Private Zone is not the only Ontario-bred Breeders' Cup contender O'Neill trains. He also has Concave (15-1), bred in King City, Ont., by Windways Farm and owned by Toronto-born Paul Reddam.
Woodbine-based trainer Mark Casse has four horses entered over the two days of racing including the undefeated My Conquestatory (9-2) in the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Laugh Track (20-1) in the Sprint.