The way Scooter Dickey sees it, he and Flat Out have a sort of pact between them. And while the 70-year-old trainer can't speak for his top performer, the results the 5-year-old horse has produced this year tell Dickey he takes his side of the arrangement as seriously as his conditioner.
"He's just awesome to be around, he's like a big baby" Dickey said of Flat Out. "It's like he just kind of tells you, 'You take care of me in here (the barn) and I'll take care of you when I go out there (on the racetrack)'."
Despite the obstacles thrown before them, both Dickey and Flat Out have persevered to hold up their ends of the bargain.
With a baker's dozen of graded stakes races on tap across the nation Saturday and two of racing's top horses in Havre de Grace and Blind Luck both competing, the spotlight will be spread thin as Breeders' Cup implications are impacted by the minute.
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Ironically, this star-filled weekend may provide Preston Stables' Flat Out his best opportunity to break out as a divisional leader when he heads a field of seven in the Grade I, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.
The 11/4-mile race is one of six graded stakes at Belmont on Saturday in addition to the Grade I Beldame, Grade I Flower Bowl, Grade I Vosburgh, Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and Grade II Kelso Handicap.
It was on Belmont's sweeping oval in July where Flat Out gave Dickey and his owners indisputable proof they had done right by the talented but injury-prone son of Flatter. After being sidelined for 20 months at one point because of chronic quarter cracks and a fracture in his shoulder, Flat Out became a graded stakes winner and a major player in the older male division when he won the Grade II Suburban Handicap by 61/2 lengths on July 2.
His subsequent starts have seen Flat Out finish second behind the horses currently ranked 1-2 in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll. Prior to getting beat 11/4 lengths by the filly Havre de Grace in the Grade I Woodward on Sept. 3, Flat Out closed off slow fractions to finish second to Tizway in the Grade I Whitney Handicap on Aug. 6.
With Havre de Grace in the Beldame and Tizway training up to the Breeders' Cup Classic after spiking a fever, Flat Out was made the 7-to-5 morning-line favorite for the Gold Cup as part of an entry with Birdrun despite the presence of Travers Stakes winner Stay Thirsty in the field.
"He's showing us we were smart for waiting on him," said Dickey, who has racked up close to 800 wins in his career. "We always had confidence in him and we've got him pretty close to as good as you can get him right now.
"Those races at Saratoga didn't turn out the way I had looked at them with having enough speed in there. Turns out, there was more or less one horse controlling the race. Maybe it will be different this time, but I'm glad to be back on the Belmont track. I hope he runs back to (the Suburban)."
If Dickey takes heart in merely watching Flat Out train in the mornings, it's because he recalls the effort it took just to get the bay horse to where he could literally set foot on a track.
After finishing sixth in the 2009 Arkansas Derby, Flat Out was found to have a small crack in his shoulder. Though the stress fracture healed within a few months, the lingering issue that kept Flat Out sidelined until December 2010 was a quarter crack in his right front foot that repeatedly flared up.
"The shoulder healed and we had him back in training, but the quarter crack started giving us trouble again," Dickey said. "It was hit and miss, hit and miss and we had to cut part of the one foot out real good and let it grow back. That was the longest period of time, getting that foot back to where we could train him on it."
Horses prone to quarter cracks always require a certain amount of extra maintenance, but Flat Out has been issue-free for most of 2011.