SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Having just returned from the track on a rainy, drizzly morning, Dallas Stewart looked like an asparagus stem that had been in the steamer too long. He drooped. Damp clothes hung off his thin frame; a knit beanie collapsed around his head. But he smiled. Of course he smiled. He's almost always smiling. If a smile isn't on his face, it's lurking just beneath the surface, recharging its sheen and preparing to leap forward to greet a friend, a visitor or even a stranger.
The smile is just as incessant and genuine as ever, and it remains relentlessly ready despite the last 15 months, when the trainer has been the most persistently prominent runner-up in horse racing. Last year, Stewart saddled Golden Soul in the Kentucky Derby, and the handsome chestnut finished 2 ½ lengths behind Orb. This year in the most famous of races, Stewart sent out another long shot, Commanding Curve, who again finished second, less than two lengths behind California Chrome. And, more recently, Stewart had to settle for second in another classic, the Coaching Club American Oaks, where Unbridled Forever finished five lengths behind Stopchargingmaria.
"If he you finish second in enough of these things, it adds up," Stewart said, half-joking as, true to his nature, he insisted the glass looked to him half-full. But, he added, "It's time to get one of these."
Life can throw many things in a person's path that might justifiably cause frustration. But finishing second in a classic horse race isn't among them, Stewart said. Nor is being at Saratoga on any morning in August, no matter how clammy or wet it might be. Still, Stewart said he's more than ready to win another classic.
Stewart's one of those persons that worked their way up from the bottom. As a youngster many years ago in New Orleans, he simply walked onto the backside of the Fair Grounds racetrack and asked around for a job. Moments later, he found himself at one end of a shank with a racehorse at the other. He was working as a "hot walker," which meant he happily sat on the bottom rung of the racetrack workforce. Soon, while working for the sport's most successful trainer at the time, D. Wayne Lukas, Stewart became a groom and eventually an assistant trainer. He stayed with Lukas for a dozen years, traveling from one of the end of the country to the other and working with such champions as Thunder Gulch and Lady's Secret, before stepping out on his own.
Even when Hurricane Katrina displaced his family and ravaged his home in 2005, Stewart said he was better off than many of his neighbors, and that indefatigable smile still lurked just below the surface, ever ready. Nine months later, Stewart won his first Classic, the Kentucky Oaks, with a 47-1 long shot named Lemons Forever. But, yes, the trainer said, it's time to win another, perhaps with a daughter of Lemons Forever.
And he'll have a chance to do just that Saturday, when he'll saddle Unbridled Forever here in the Alabama Stakes. Stewart also has Commanding Curve aimed at next weekend's Travers. They're both doing extremely well, Stewart said.
Not that the "due theory" has ever been an effective approach to handicapping, but Unbridled Forever especially seems on the verge of stepping forward. Anybody with a horse in the Alabama would agree that the most talented 3-year-old filly in the country is Untapable, who recently tried "the boys" in the Haskell. Chasing Untapable in both the Fair Grounds Oaks and Kentucky Oaks, Unbridled Forever finished third. She also ran third in the one-mile Acorn Stakes, where she rallied from 12th.
"She's just getting better," Stewart said about the long, lean filly. "In the Coaching Club, she was a little too far back and just got outrun. But she's better now, much better. She's put on weight and is probably better now than ever."
Saying that, Stewart looked in her direction and, of course, smiled.