By Jay Hovdey, DRF.com
Most of us, finding ourselves awake at 3 a.m., wallow in Fitzgerald’s brooding idea that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” Then we turn over and struggle back to sleep.
Except for Bill Spawr. For Spawr, a trainer for more than 40 of his 77 years, by 3 a.m. he is well into a bright new working day, already prowling his stable, peering into the stalls of sleepy headed Thoroughbreds, deciding who gets to do what and when.
Until this month. As of Monday, Spawr was halfway through a 30-day suspension levied by the California Horse Racing Board for a 56-picogram overage of the legal therapeutic medication clenbuterol found in the post-race urine sample of the 4-year-old filly Skye Diamonds after her second place finish to the classy Vale Dori in the Adoration Stakes at Santa Anita last May 7.
(A picogram is one-trillionth of a gram, which prompts a whole different discussion for another day.)
On this particular morning, a caller felt fairly safe to rattle Spawr’s cage at around half past six, figuring he would be sleeping in, to ask what he was doing with all the sudden time on his hands.
“I’m on my way to therapy,” Spawr said from his car. “Physical therapy, that is. I’ve given up on the other kind.”
Okay, that was good news. Spawr has not lost the finely tuned sense of humor he earned not only from his decades as a public trainer, but also as a by-product of his training apprenticeship with such mordantly funny practitioners as Joe Manzi and Brian Mayberry, both gone now.
Spawr has been on his own hook so long that’s it’s hard to imagine him ever at the low end of a learning curve. His record and reputation are universally admired by his West Coast colleagues. They have watched helplessly as Spawr has won major races with the likes of Exchange, Enjoy the Moment, Sensational Star, Bordonaro, Restage, and My Sonny Boy, often turning claimers into stakes-caliber horses, much in the mold of legends like Hall of Famers Bobby Frankel and Gary Jones.
Spawr’s finest work was on display in 2011 with Amazombie, a Cal-bred of modest parentage, bred and owned by Spawr with his longtime partner Tom Sanford. After dusting the local competition, Spawr took his horse into the lion’s den of Churchill Downs and came away with not only the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, but the Eclipse Award for the male sprint division as well. Yes, there was a party.
Skye Diamonds, a $40,000 claim by Spawr for a partnership last summer, has been on a similar Breeders’ Cup trajectory since her victory over reigning division champ Finest City and major stakes winners Constellation and Pretty N Cool in the Great Lady M. Stakes at Los Alamitos in early July. A daughter of First Dude, Skye Diamonds came right back to beat Constellation again in the Rancho Bernardo at Del Mar in mid-August, keeping her record in sprints perfect under Spawr’s handling.
The clenbuterol suspension commenced on Aug. 28 and runs through Sept. 26. Spawr had to turn over his stable business to his longtime assistant, Darryl Rader, and he is denied access to all racetrack grounds, frontside and back, for the duration of the ban. The transition was not that easy.
“I tried to sleep in, but I’m still waking up at 1:30,” Spawr said. “I’ve discovered there’s not much to do at that hour when you’re not going to work. So I do some exercises, then I go back to sleep for a while, and after that head for my physical therapy for my back.”
Spawr suffered vertebra fractures a few years ago in a stall accident. Even after surgery in May of 2014, he is still feeling the debilitating effects of the resulting nerve damage. He was asked to recall how it happened.
“I tossed a horse some carrots, turned around, took a bad step and fell underneath the webbing,” Spawr said. “Right now I’m not any worse, but I’m not getting better, so I thought I’d take this time to consult other doctors.
“Otherwise, I’m doing a lot of things I thought I’d never get done, getting things fixed around the house I never had time for. I’ve watched about every movie possible on On Demand. But I miss the horses. I really do.”
Spawr last saw Skye Diamonds on Aug. 27 and will not see her again until he returns on Sept. 27. Since the Rancho Bernardo, the plan has been to train her up to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, to be run at Del Mar on Nov. 4.
“She looked wonderful,” Spawr said. “And I think she’ll look just as good when I get back.”
Spawr will take a rare, extended road trip this week with some of his owners to the yearling sales in Kentucky.
“That’s something I am allowed to do,” he noted, carefully hewing to the terms of his suspension.
“And I’m going to visit Amazombie at Old Friends while I’m there,” Spawr added. “That will be very cool. I haven’t seen him since he got back there, but people send me stuff about him all the time. I guess he’s become quite an attraction.”
Even a forced vacation has its silver linings.