About 20 months ago, Heros Reward, a bay gelding with a lackluster racing career, was one spin around a dirt oval away from perhaps living out his life as someone's trail pony.
Now, the 6-year-old is two days away from running in the biggest race of his life, the Breeders' Cup $1 million Turf Sprint on Saturday at Santa Anita Park.
In late 2006, the Maryland-bred son of Partner's Hero was a $20,000 claimer who seemed to be worth not a whole lot more than the modest price paid by his new ownership, led by Bob Haynes.
But veteran Laurel Park-based trainer Dale Capuano had a notion that Heros Reward might benefit from a switch from dirt to turf.
"It was all Cap," Haynes said, referring to the trainer who made the decision.
"The first time we tried him on turf, Heros Reward went off at about 60-1, and he finished second."
Capuano said the idea occurred to him because of Heros Reward's breeding. Danzig and Caveat are in his genealogy, and both have been sires to outstanding turf runners, the trainer said.
"Plus, he always trained better than he raced, and I thought he would like the firmer footing," Capuano said.
Since then, Heros Reward has been a home run, winning about $850,000 over roughly the past two years.
Among his four victories in the past year was the Old Mutual Turf Sprint on Preakness Day at Pimlico Race Course. Since then, Heros Reward has won twice, finished second and, most recently, was fourth in the Nearctic Stakes at Woodbine near Toronto.
Oddly enough, it was a close examination of the fourth-place finish in the Grade II Nearctic - only a length behind winner True Tradition - that convinced Heros Reward's connection to enter him in the Breeders' Cup.
The bay was running on a slightly moist surface - not his favorite - and got a wide ride but still was battling gamely down the stretch.
"He got wide from the gate," Capuano said.
"You can't lose a lot of ground like that and overcome it when you're running against horses of the same caliber."
For the Breeders' Cup race in Southern California, a 6 1/2 -furlong sprint that is the second event on Saturday's card leading up to the Classic, getting caught wide won't be the problem for Heros Reward and jockey Javier Castellano.
The Maryland standard-bearer drew the No. 1 post position. That might not be ideal for a horse that Capuano describes as a stalker and closer.
Although Heros Reward has shown he can go wire-to-wire, that's not likely to happen in Saturday's 14-horse field with the significant speed that will break from the gates. But Heros Reward has shown several gears.
"This horse is very versatile, and a lot of it is going to be up to Castellano," said Capuano, winner of 30 training titles at Laurel and Pimlico. "Once they break from the gate, a lot of time your game plan goes out the window and you have to call an audible."
Some of the competition on Saturday will be familiar. True Tradition, winner of the Nearctic, is entered, as well as Rouse the Cat, who finished second in the same race.
But although Heros Reward was just behind those two at Woodbine, he finished ahead of Rouse the Cat in two other races since August, and on Preakness Day, it was Heros Reward beating True Tradition to the finish line.
"We've beaten them all and they've beaten us," Capuano said.
The early favorite is Get Funky at 9-2. But the most impressive recent resume belongs to the horse who drew the far outside No. 14 hole, Mr. Nightlinger (6-1), a Kentucky-bred 4-year-old speed horse who has won five straight races and led each of them from the start.
Heros Reward (8-1) is getting a fair amount of respect from the oddsmakers.
"In most of the turf races, you need some luck and you need a good trip. That's really what separates horses in this type of race," Capuano said. "They tend to get bunched up, and you have to stay out of trouble. All of these horses are pretty evenly matched, so if things go well, we have a chance to win. If they don't, we're going to be back in the pack."
Haynes said above all, this trip to the Breeders' Cup is something Heros Reward has earned. The same might be said for Capuano, who is making his first trip to the Breeders' Cup.
"This horse has given us everything he has in every race he's been in, and that's remarkable," Haynes said. "We'd like to win this for Maryland and for Maryland racing," he added. "And I'd like to win it for Cap, too."
DAYS AT THE RACES
When: Tomorrow - five races involving fillies and mares, 3:35 p.m.; Saturday - nine races, male horses, 1:10 p.m. (Classic 6:45 p.m.)
Where: Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.
TV: Tomorrow, ESPN2; Saturday, chs. 2, 7, 1-3:30 p.m.; ESPN, 3:30-7 p.m.
Purses: Total $25.5 million