Forever Unbridled's performance in Saturday night's G2 Fleur de Lis was particularly impressive, considering trainer Dallas Stewart had the 5-year-old mare ready to fire off a seven-month layoff. Last seen in running third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, just 1 ¼ lengths behind Beholder and Songbird, Forever Unbridled earned a trip back to the World Championships with her comeback victory.
“She was just tremendously fit last year, and then there was a very small chip that was taken out of her ankle (after the Breeders' Cup),” Stewart said. “She went to WinStar in February or March, so they had been training her, and when I got her in May she had a great foundation on her. Just training her through May and leading up to this race, she never got tired, did everything that she's supposed to do, being the great racehorse that she is. She never had a day where I thought to myself, 'Well, maybe she's getting tired, do I need to back off of her?' It was just 'Give me more, give me more.'”
Stewart has a similar mindset, upbeat and happy to be at the track each morning. The trainer has long been associated with top-class racehorses, from his years under Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas to owning and training Forever Unbridled's dam, Kentucky Oaks winner Lemons Forever. Despite his resume, Stewart has a tendency to avoid the media spotlight, preferring the company of his horses and his family. He may be camera-shy, but Stewart's boisterous personality would be labeled anything but.
Born in Mississippi and raised just outside New Orleans (where he picked up a notable Louisiana drawl), Stewart grew up riding horses with his grandfather but quickly graduated to learn how to gallop local racing Quarter Horses. By the age of 15, Stewart was heading to the Fair Grounds Racecourse each morning before school to exercise on the track.
Through his early 20s, Stewart galloped in the mornings and worked as a valet in the afternoons at the Fair Grounds. Preparing the equipment and tacking horses for future Hall of Famer Randy Romero, as well as ship-in jockeys Chris McCarron, Richard Migliore and Angel Cordero, Stewart saved his money and got married at the age of 22. By 1985, he had enough for a trip to California; the goal was to claim several horses and bring them back to New Orleans to race. From 16 starts he managed two wins and a third, but the figures just didn't line up.
“I lost my butt on a few of them,” Stewart laughed, humble as he looks back.
He had returned to his jobs galloping and as a valet in the jock's room when Stewart met Randy Bradshaw, then an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas. Bradshaw noted Stewart's work ethic and his skill on a racehorse and invited him to come gallop for Lukas at Canterbury Park.
“Dallas looked great on a horse, he had a great set of hands,” Bradshaw told trainermagazine.com. “And he'll tell you like it is, too — whether you like it or not.”
In his work for Lukas over the next 11 ½ years, Stewart and his wife traveled the country from California to Kentucky to New York and back again. He galloped Kentucky Derby-winning filly Winning Colors and worked with then-assistants Mark Henning and Kiaran McLaughlin; Stewart even hired future trainer Mike Maker over a telephone interview.
“We had a lot of nice horses working for Wayne,” said Stewart. “Just go down the line, it was runner after runner; it was very exciting. I got along great with Wayne and Jeff, and I spent a lot of time with both of them. I was very fortunate. We all owe them a lot. We worked hard, we all respected each other, and I think we all learned a lot along the way. I know I did.”
In 1997, Stewart decided it was time to try to make it on his own, and with a donation of equipment and best wishes from Lukas, he hung out his shingle. Willis Horton, one of Lukas' clients, offered Stewart a loan to help him get on his feet; the young trainer quickly found success and was able to pay him back.
Dogwood's Cot Campbell and West Point's Terry Finley both sent horses to Stewart in the early years, and in 2001 he saddled Unbridled Elaine to a narrow victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff under Pat Day. For the next few years, his earnings topped $2 million annually, and in 2004 he purchased a daughter of Lemon Drop Kid at the Keeneland September sale for $140,000.
It would be this mare, on whom he partnered with the Horton family, that would give extra definition to Stewart's career. Lemons Forever won the 2006 Kentucky Oaks, but her real gift to the trainer would be in her own offspring. Entered in the Keeneland November breeding stock sale, she caught the eye of Charles Fipke; he bought the mare for $2.5 million.
“I went over to congratulate (Fipke), and we just hit it off,” Stewart said. “You know, my personality is just how it is, and we just hit it off. He said he'd send me some horses one day, and I said 'That's great, man, I appreciate it. I wish you the best with this mare.'”
Fipke was true to his word, sending Stewart a number of horses, and Lemons Forever rewarded the breeder's investment with a pair of Grade 1-winning daughters, both sired by the late Unbridled's Song. Unbridled Forever came first, earning her G1 in the Ballerina at Saratoga, and Forever Unbridled so far has a pair of top-level successes on her resume.
“Looking how it turned out, it's pretty awesome,” said Stewart. “The family's just been unreal.”
While it isn't uncommon for Stewart to have a part-ownership in horses in his stable, he wasn't expecting to venture into the breeding side of the industry. That all changed in 2008 with a Sky Mesa mare named Boy Crazy. Acquired through a deal on training fees, the mare didn't do much on the track, running fifth in a maiden claiming event in her first and only start. Stewart bred her and sent her to Louisiana to foal, hoping to take advantage of the state-bred racing program.
Boy Crazy's 2014 foal by Tale of Ekati was a stunningly-marked chestnut colt, and he showed talent from the start. Named Saint's Fan for Stewart's enduring love of the New Orleans football team, the colt raced with Stewart's name as breeder, owner and trainer. He captured a Louisiana-bred stakes race at the Fair Grounds in just his second career start as a juvenile, then finished third in his 3-year-old debut at Delta Downs.
Stewart aimed the colt for the New Orleans' Triple Crown prep races, but in March, Saint's Fan suffered a tragic training accident which broke his hind leg; the colt had to be euthanized.
“It was devastating,” Stewart said. “I was probably more attached to that horse… I look at pictures of him every day, I just loved him.”
In the midst of all his Grade 1-winning success with fillies, Stewart has also built a solid record in the Triple Crown races with longshots. He finished second in the Kentucky Derby with Golden Soul (34-1), a Fipke homebred, in 2013, and with Commanding Curve (37-1) for West Point in 2014. Stewart has also picked up a pair of seconds in the Preakness, first with West Point's Macho Again (40-1) in 2008, and then with Fipke's Tale of Verve (28-1) in 2015.
While neither of his two sons seem interested in pursuing careers in training, Stewart said they are happy to support him in his work, helping out in the afternoons. Both have also worked on the local hay and grain truck, distributing equine feedstuffs around the Churchill stable area for extra cash.
“Whatever they want is fine with me,” Stewart said, adding that he would fully support his children should either change his mind. “If you do well (training), you can make a good living and enjoy doing what you love. I'm looking forward to the future.”
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