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Neal claims first leading jockey award

GRANTS PASS — Never before has Grants Pass Downs seen such a contest for top jockey.

Going into Race 6 on the last day, Tim Neal, Jose Guerrero, Hugo Herrera and Troy Stillwell had 12 wins apiece, and April Boag had 11. All five contenders mounted up for this 61/2-furlong event. Boag rode Divorce Attorney, a recent winner of the Humboldt County Marathon; Guerrero rode Snowbound Hero, who won by nearly 8 lengths on the Fourth of July; and Neal, well, he was on Soft Defense, a 7-year-old gelding who seemed out of his league.

Unless you looked closer.

Neal had ridden Soft Defense to two wins last July at the Downs. In fact, this horse likes heat, which there was plenty of Sunday as the mercury rose to 102 degrees at the Fairgrounds.

Still, things almost went awry for the veteran campaigner in the paddock, where he began to pitch and kick. At that point his 72-year-old trainer, Sondra Gabriel, stepped in and took the lead. As she walked, he turned from a demon to a Dobbin, following her placidly.

"He doesn't like to have his lead yanked," Gabriel explained afterward.

The race began as expected. Snowbound Hero shot out and Divorce Attorney pursued.

"That's when I thought, 'Game over,'" Neal said. "Soft Defense likes to lay back, then make his move."

Which is what happened on the final turn when the older gelding stretched out and passed the two leaders as easy as pie, giving Neal his first leading jockey award at the Downs.

"I love Soft Defense. I rode him five times (to) three wins and two seconds. And Sandy is just the sweetest lady in the whole world. I love riding for her," he said.

He may not have many more chances. Sondra Gabriel, who has trained here since the early seventies, is down to one racehorse, "plus a saddle horse," she said.

Since 2011, Neal has gone from last to first in the jockey standings.

"Last year I didn't care. This year I wanted to win, and I had lots of friends that kept me from getting the big head and acting stupid," he said, then turned and gave a grateful hug to jockey April Boag, whose four wins over the day almost overtook him.

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THE LEADING trainer award went to Don Young. The Boardman horseman's eight winners included Jess Be Hawkin, ridden by Tad Skaggs in the Firecracker Futurity. Skaggs did not ride Sunday because of a hip hematoma from a fall Saturday, but he and Young are bound for the Prineville meet, which begins Wednesday night.

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EMILIO GUERRERO took top owner with his six winning horses, all of which he trained.

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IN OTHER races Sunday, the $5,000 H.B.P.A. purse went to Steel Blue, ridden by Boag and trained by Allen Aldrich. The Kentucky-bred gelding ran away from the field in the 11/16-mile endurance test.

And Nancy Klapatch's Old Standard defeated Noballstwostrikes and Timber Twister at 61/2 furlongs. Klapatch is another longtime figure at the Downs who has recorded more than her share of upsets.

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THE FINAL day's handle was an unimpressive $25,226. More work needs to be done on this front.

Still, it's a welcome meet that ends with no grim statistics. Three jockeys were grounded awhile because of bruises they sustained when they bailed off bolting horses at almost the same spot, but they recovered. As for the meet's horses, they all survived and many prospered.

Yet there's no denying that horses occasionally die in this sport.

The thing is, horses like to run and will do so no matter where they are. In fact, those running on a track are safer than those running in a field. That's because a track is graded, banked and surfaced evenly with dirt or sand or a synthetic easy on the hoof, whereas fields are irregular with gopher holes and rocks. Also, no track is enclosed by barbed wire, the bane of horses kept in pastures.

Racehorses differ in other notable ways. They are better fed and better shod, they receive more veterinary attention and they live longer than most of their field counterparts. This is common knowledge among horsemen, but it hasn't reached some members of the public, whose letters to the editor howl at the wickedness of the sport.

Free speech is probably our greatest right. Sometimes, though, free things are worthless.

The dogs bark but the caravan moves on, drawn by horses.

Sunday's Results

FIRST RACE

TB Maiden Special Weight, 51/2 F. 1, Lightnin Lass (A. Boag), 5.00, 2.80, 2.20; 2, Diamonds Suzie Q (T. Neal), 3.00, 2.20; 3, El Capitan Dan (H. Herrera), 2.20. Q — 3-4 $3.20; EX — 3-4 $3.30; TRI — 3-4-1 $3.70. Time — 1:04.

SECOND RACE

TB Clm, 51/2 F. 1, Eddies Saint (T. Neal), 3.80, 2.60, 2.10; 2, Lucky George (T. Stillwell), 3.20, 2.20; 3, Bad Boy Benny (A. Boag), 2.10. Q — 2-5 $7.20; EX — 5-2 $4.30; TRI — 5-2-3 $9. Time — 1:33.

THIRD RACE

TB Clm, 51/2 F. 1, Danzgal (H. Herrera), 3.00, 3.00, 2.40; 2, Katieinthefastlane (J. Guerrero), 5.00, 2.20; 3, Warren's Genius (A. Boag), 2.40. Q — 3-4 $13.60; EX — 3-4 $2.80; TRI — 3-4-5 $15.20; DD — 5-3 $4.80. Time — 2:06.

FOURTH RACE

TB Clm, 51/2 F. 1, Maui and Me (A. Boag), 5.60, 2.60, 3.00; 2, Lobos Roar (J. Guerrero), 2.60, 2.80; 3, Almost Toast (T. Wheeler), 3.40. Q — 1-4 $5.80; EX — 1-4 $5.50; TRI — 1-4-5 $19.00. Time — 2:32.

FIFTH RACE

TB Alw, 51/2 F. 1, Stylefree (A. Boag), 5.80, 2.40, 2.20; 2, Color Me Tuff (A. Boag), 2.60, 2.10; 3, Low Expectations (H. Herrera), 2.10. Q — 1-2 $5.00; EX — 2-1 $3.50; TRI — 2-1-3 $6.60. Time — 3:00.

SIXTH RACE

TB Clm, 61/2 F. 1, Soft Defense (T. Neal), 4.20, 2.60, 2.10; 2, Shakin Shamus (H. Herrera), 3.60, 2.40; 3, Snowbound Hero (J. Guerrero), 2.20. Q — 2-5 $9.80; EX — 5-2 $6.70; TRI — 5-2-3 $9.50. Time — 3:30.

SEVENTH RACE

TB Clm, 61/2 F. 1, Old Standard (N. Parker), 5.80, 2.60, 2.10; 2, Timber Twister (T. Stillwell), 2.60, 2.10; 3, Noballstwostrikes (J. Guerrero), 2.10. Q — 1-2 $9.00; EX — 1-2 $7.10; TRI — 1-2-4 $9.80. Time — 3:59.

EIGHTH RACE

Oregon H.B.P.A., 11/16 M. 1, Steel Blue (A. Boag), 2.60, 2.40, 2.80; 2, Bold Officer (H. Herrera), 3.60, 2.80; 3, Pepe Le Feu (T. Neal), 2.60. Q — 2-4 $8.40; EX — 2-4 $5.40; TRI — 2-4-3 $19.80. Time — 4:29.

NINTH RACE

QH Alw, 600 yd. 1, Cosmic Clash (R. Camacho), 6.60, 2.60, 2.10; 2, Swiss Ace (H. Herrera), 2.60, 2.10; 3, Fun's Top Hit (J. Guerrero), 2.10. Q — 2-3 $2.40; EX — 2-3 $1.60; TRI — 2-3-1 $3.10; DD — 2-2 $6.00. Time — 4:57.

Dan Guthrie can be reached at guthrie23@centurylink.net