Nick, Martha Gonzalez carrying on Darren Fortune's name with two-year-old colt

Darren's Fortune, a two-year-old gelding named after the late Darren Fortune, an exercise rider who was killed Sept. 8 in a training accident at Woodbine Racetrack. Darren's Fortune is currently at Woodbine training to eventually become a racing thoroughbred. Darren's Fortune is seen with groom Misty Hudson in an undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Woodbine Entertainment, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

TORONTO - Darren's Fortune has quickly fit in at Woodbine Racetrack.

Less than a week after arriving there, the two-year-old thoroughbred has already had a calming influence on Out of Cake, a three-year-old filly in the stall next to him. That's one of many traits that endeared his namesake — the late exercise rider Darren Fortune — to many at the Toronto oval.

"That's how he's like Darren," said assistant trainer Martha Gonzalez. "I have a very nervous filly next to him and she just loves him.

"He has that calming affect already."

Fortune, 43, died Sept. 8 in a training accident aboard Beer Pressure at Woodbine. Shortly afterwards, veteran trainer Nick Gonzalez purchased the new colt for $10,000 at a Woodbine-sponsored yearling sale in Kentucky.

Although the horse was one of four Gonzalez bought, the two-time Queen's Plate-winning conditioner knew immediately it was the one to carry Fortune's name. Fortune worked 15 years for the Gonzalezes while also serving as an outrider at Woodbine.

But it took time to find the right moniker.

"We were scouring the barn thinking of different names but nothing really suited," said Martha Gonzalez, who names all the new additions to the couple's operation. "Then Wendy (Wendy McLaren, Woodbine's grounds manager) checked on the horse and came up with Darren's Fortune.

"It was absolutely perfect."

Groom Misty Hudson, who called Fortune one of her best friends, could only smile when comparing the horse to Fortune.

"He's a pain in my ass," she said, tongue firmly in cheek.

Nick Gonzalez — currently at his Ocala, Fla., farm — originally thought about skipping the sale as he and the thoroughbred racing community mourned Fortune's death. However, it was his wife who urged him to go, saying Fortune, who was a tireless worker, would've wanted it that way.

"I had Darren on my mind," Nick Gonzalez said. "Actually he's always on my mind.

"When I'm here by myself in Florida and kind of lonely after supper drinking a glass of wine, I'll shoot (Darren) him a text and say, 'Hi pal.'"

But Gonzalez didn't find just any horse.

"He's a beauty," Gonzalez said. "I had my eye on him . . . I had already marked him in my book."

Even in his shaggy winter coat, Darren's Fortune looks the part. The dark bay gelding with expressive eyes and a turf pedigree sports a flat foot that could be suitable for competing on Woodbine's E.P. Taylor grass course, possibly as early as this year.

Darren's Fortune seems to have personality. While having his nose petted, the two-year-old was asked if he was a good boy and immediately nodded his head up and down, seemingly understanding the question.

However there's no timetable regarding when — or if — Darren's Fortune will race.

"It's too early to tell because he's only been galloping a week," Martha Gonzalez said. "Nick and I are blessed, all the clients we train for are in no rush for them.

"I can decide what they're going to do, when they're going to do it and so right now it's early. I have no schedule with him. Some get along earlier, others make you wait. He's doing everything right."

Gonzalez's first spring without Fortune has been one of adjustment. But although he's gone, Fortune's impact upon the barn hasn't been forgotten.

"Darren was a very good exercise rider who was a true athlete and knew how to do what he had to do," she said. "But what he did was make our barn a more forgiving one.

"Sometimes grooms get annoyed and don't talk to one another but there's none of that any more. Everyone's much kinder to each other and helps each other out. If there's good from all of this, he made us a kinder working environment and outfit."

But Gonzalez misses Fortune's experience and horse knowledge.

"I have a two-year-old filly we're sending back to the farm because we can't get her going," she said. "I was chuckling to myself, 'Darren where are you?' because he would've got her going.

"We have a saying: 'You must be smarter than the horse.' And Darren was much smarter than the horses. He was very good at what he did . . . and I trusted him. He was very kind to horses and knew mentally what they could take."

Nick Gonzalez said he and Fortune both walked away from their share of close calls.

"I wasn't at Woodbine (on Sept. 8) but people who saw it said they just expected Darren to pop up, brush his pants off and jump right back up on the horse," he said. "Darren would get on any horse, he wasn't afraid of anything.

"I'll never forget, I had this filly and I'm walking her down the training track and Darren was on her. She flips over and Darren goes flying one way and I go the other. We get up and Darren looks at me and says, 'What the heck just happened?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'Get me back up on her.' That's just how he was."

And that's one reason why Darren's Fortune's first race will be a very emotional one.

"Oh, it will be hard," Martha Gonzalez said. "One of the most stressful days I had was when Beer Pressure ran after Darren . . . and the last day of (Woodbine's '17 thoroughbred schedule) was also hard because you knew it had all come to an end.

"So yeah, when this horse runs there'll be plenty of emotion."

Added Nick Gonzalez: "You know there's going to be tears flowing and lumps in the throat."

Celebrating a first victory will also be special.

"Well, we know who'll be watching, that's for sure," Nick Gonzalez said. "And, yes, there will be a toast."


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