Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 24, 2011

From Kentucky Derby to the Pleasanton racetrack

What a year it's been for horse trainer Jeff Bonde

by Dennis Miller

Two weeks before the start of the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, Jeff Bonde was sitting in his small office in the stable area of the Pleasanton Fairgrounds, going over the workouts of 17 horses earlier that morning.

Anyone passing by the old-school office would have a hard time believing it was the same Jeff Bonde that in the previous month had saddled horses in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Bonde has had a sensational year, winning his first Grade I race and saddling horses in two of the biggest races of the season. But there he was in Pleasanton, working hard to get his next set of horses ready for this year's Alameda County Fair. Instead of fleeing to Southern California full-time -- or somewhere else in the country -- Bonde has kept the majority of his horses' right in Pleasanton.

From the glamour and fanfare of the Triple Crown to a smallish, brick-lined building at a county fairground -- and Bonde wouldn't have it any other way.

"This is still our base," said Bonde of his hometown Pleasanton. "We're a young horse operation and have been for our entire career. The majority of my horses who run around the country have started here. I have a lot of friends and clients here -- it's important to do well here."

After a year like Bonde has had, most would find it hard to stay low key. In early June he was among the top 30 trainers in the nation in terms of earnings. Smiling Tiger -- winner of two Grade I races, including the first ever for Bonde when he won the Bing Crosby at Del Mar last August -- has been his most consistent starter over the course of the last year.

Twice the Appeal stunned the field at the Sunland Derby, winning the Kentucky Derby prep at 25-1 and earning Bonde's first trip to the paddock at Churchill Downs in the Run for the Roses. Sway Away, who broke his maiden at the Pleasanton Fair last year, just missed the Derby on earnings, but Bonde saddled the horse for the Preakness Stakes.

But two weeks before the start of the Fair, Bonde was every bit as concerned with the progress of a 2-year-old who has never run a race as he was with Sway Away or Twice the Appeal.

"He is always so humble," said Allan Aldrich, who is, like Bonde, a long-time Pleasanton person and who owns some horses with Bonde. "He works so hard -- he is thinking horses 24/7. The people who know him all respect him so much."

In the horse racing world, respect is earned, not just handed out. While Bonde has earned a lot of it this year with his success on the track, his keen eye for new horses while at sales has become his calling card.

When prospective buyers attend a sale, the bloodlines of a horse are available and many times those alone can persuade a buyer to make a purchase. But Bonde has a knack for being able to take a good look at a horse and develop a strong feeling as to its quality.

"There is no one in Northern California -- or the world for that matter -- who can pick a horse with the naked eye like Jeff," said Mersad Metanovic, who helps Bonde in a racing manager capacity. "I would put him up against anyone in the world, and if money was no object, he'd always get the best horses and we would be in the Kentucky Derby every year."

But money is an object when you live in Northern California. For the pure spending of money on buying horses, Northern California is Wal-Mart compared to Southern California being Nordstrom.

"(World famous trainer) Bob Baffert jokes with me all the time," said Bonde. "We will be at a sale and he will put his arms around me and say, 'Put on your seatbelt, you are in the wrong zip code.'"

All this means finding the right horses for the right price.

"We are doing it on a budget against a lot of people with no budget," explained Metanovic. "We do our homework."

This is what sets Bonde apart -- that and the hours he puts into his work.

"Our game is all about detail," said Bonde. "Today's world is year-round. You have to build an army or you have a tough time making ends meet. You have to win. To compete at the world level, you have to spare nothing. It takes putting a team together to make it work."

This year it's also meant Bonde has been on the road more than in years past. In addition to trips to Kentucky for the Derby and Maryland for the Preakness, Bonde spent considerable time in Arkansas at Oaklawn Park with his top horses.

"I would rather be at home, but when the stakes get slaughtered, you don't have a choice," said Bonde. "I've logged a lot of miles this year. I'm 56 years old and I'm starting to get tired."

But the work paid off with the horses in both the Derby and the Preakness, although both fell far short of the team's expectations.

Twice the Appeal, by virtue of the stunning win in the Sunland, gained entry into the race, but finished 10th.

Sway Away just missed out on the Derby, as the horse was 21st on the earnings list for the 20-horse field. A late scratch by Uncle Mo made it even more painful for Sway Away as there's no "also eligible" list for the Derby as there is for most races. In order for Sway Away to make the field, Uncle Mo would've had to have scratched earlier in the week.

Some in the industry criticized Uncle Mo's connections as they felt there was no way he would start in the Derby and they should have scratched earlier, allowing Sway Away into the race.

Bonde took the high road.

"Everyone wanted me to say something," said Bonde. "But the reality of it is you can't be mad. The system is set up for there to be no 'also eligible.' Maybe they ought to consider that."

Sway Away really appeared primed for a big run.

"He was training lights out," said Bonde. "You never know what might have happened."

The horse then moved on to The Preakness Stakes. The connections had high hopes, but before the race started, Bonde felt they might be in trouble.

"That was really a disappointing run," said Bonde of Sway Away's 12th place finish. "I thought he was going to run a major race -- that horse has a lot of talent. But the Blue Angels flew overheard (before the race) and the horse just melted. It was a totally wasted race. It was nice timing for a wasted race."

As for what this year's Alameda County Fair holds for Bonde there are some certainties of which horses we will and won't get a chance to see. Obviously Smiling Tiger, Twice the Appeal and Sway Away won't be running, but look for other Bonde standouts such as Excessive Passion, Road Ready and Mighty Monsoon.

Then there will be the host of 2-year-olds that Bonde trots out every year. Last year the Fair horse racing fans got to see Sway Away's first race. This year who will take his place?

"I've got a lot of 2-year-olds," said Bonde. "And there's some pretty good ones in there."

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