When jockey R.M. “Bobby” Gonzalez moved his tack to Northern California in the late 1970s, one of the trainers who took notice of his ability to break horses quickly out of the starting gate was Doug Utley.
“He gave me first call after I started beating him in a lot of races because I would get out of the gate fast and his horses couldn't catch me,” Gonzalez said. “I became a speed rider and he loved speed horses. We made a good team.”
Over the next 30 years, until a spill ended Gonzalez's riding career in 2009, the two men were a force to be reckoned with in Northern California. They remained close friends in the ensuing years, and when Utley was suffering through the last stages of cancer he called the rider to tell him his end was near and that he planned to return to his native Utah.
“I stopped by his place in Pleasanton about 10 days ago,” Gonzalez said on Wednesday. “He was in bad, bad shape and told me this would be our last chance to be together. We reminisced about the good old days. It made me very sad. I didn't want to cry in front of him but when I got in the car to leave the tears started to come.”
Gonzalez said Utley, 79, arrived in Utah last Friday, March 17, and died the following day.
Utley was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001 and underwent intensive radiation treatment at that time. It was in remission for a number of years, then returned and spread to other parts of his body, Gonzalez said.
“He battled cancer for 15 years. He was down to about 110 pounds when I saw him,” Gonzalez said of Utley.
One of the races they reminisced about was the 1989 Gold Rush Handicap at Golden Gate Fields, when Utley-trained and Gonzalez-ridden Avenging Force upset unbeaten Grade 1 winner King Glorious, a Jerry Hollendorfer-trained colt ridden by Chris McCarron who had won the Hollywood Futurity.
Golden Gate's racing office hustled Utley to run Avenging Force, telling him second money in the Gold Rush would pay more than a win in allowance company. Utley was reluctant at first, Gonzalez said, but finally entered to help the race fill.
King Glorious was a 1-9 favorite on the board when the gates opened.
“Doug told me, ‘We're running for second place. Don't let anybody pass you for second,'” Gonzalez recalled. “McCarron opened up three lengths early and I sat second, putting my horse right behind King Glorious. McCarron kept looking back to his inside and outside and never saw me. When I got to the quarter pole I chirped to my horse and said, ‘Wow, I've got a lot of horse.' I went to the inside and my horse just exploded. McCarron looked over at me at the eighth pole and said, ‘Oh (expletive deleted)!' I opened up about five lengths on him and held on to win by about a length.”
Hollendorfer, like McCarron a future Hall of Famer, was the king of Northern California, and Gonzalez said Utley took special pleasure in beating him that day.
“The crowd loved it,” he said. “The next morning on the backstretch, everybody was talking about the race, how we beat Hollendorfer.”
Avenging Force was one of 1,253 winners from 9,880 starters saddled by Utley from 1976 through 2017. Most were claiming horses, but he had the occasional stakes winner, like Grade 3 winner Don Alberto, who won the 1979 Thanksgiving Day Handicap. His last starter came in January of this year.
Utley asked his longtime assistant, Felix Rondan, to take over the operation when he was no longer able to get to the track.
“He loved to train horses,” Gonzalez said. “He didn't love to do anything else. He was respected around the racetrack and was just a really good horseman. He really had an eye for yearlings and 2-year-olds at the sales. He just didn't have the money to spend that some others did.
“Wayne Lukas sent a horse that he bought for $1.2 million up to Northern California once to try and break his maiden,” Gonzalez said. “We beat him with a horse Doug bought for $17,000. He really enjoyed that. He said he never cared about pedigree when he was buying horses, only their conformation. He'd say, ‘If you've got a horse with speed, you can win a lot of races.'”
Utley is survived by his wife, Lori. Services will be held in Utah. More details will be provided as they become available.
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