Rene Douglas saw his chance to give back.
Because when life inflicts one with special needs, depending on others is no longer a matter of choice. Seeking aid might stick in the craw of the strong-willed but, after the events of May 23, 2009, offerings of support weren't something the former jockey could dismiss.
The injuries sustained when Douglas' mount, Born to Be, landed on top of him during a spill that day at Arlington Park took away his ability to walk — for starters. It also robbed the man of his love of racing and led him to try to shut himself off from the world outside of his wife and children. He was the same man who confidently guided 3,587 mounts to victory and who got Dreaming of Anna to relax on the front end en route to a triumph in the 2006 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
A handful of Douglas' Chicago-based friends refused to let him sink, however. From hospital visits to encouraging words, they kept finding ways to keep his spirit afloat when the waves of despair hit. For that, the least Douglas wanted to do was find his buddies the best horse any of them had ever owned.
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So he used his intuition to unearth a gem out of his native Panama. He saw something in a talented but seemingly crazy son of Macho Uno that his brother Rogelio Douglas was training in 2011 and 2012.
And he talked his friends into buying a horse who would sometimes refuse to train and other times simply pull himself up during races.
"I knew if I showed them those races, for sure they would back out," Douglas laughed. "The races where he pulled up, I never showed those races to them. But I knew I had the right horse, I just needed to teach him right ... and start all over with him.
"These guys helped me get through the hard times when I was in the hospital. And I knew they love racing and I knew how much they wanted to have a good horse. That was a gift back to them."
Since being purchased in 2012 by the group known as Good Friends Stables, Private Zone has become a four-time Grade I winner, pushed his bankroll past $2.6 million and is expected to vie for favoritism in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Keeneland on Oct. 31.
At the age of 6, the one-time problem child is a 6-furlong run away from a potential championship for male sprinter. Good as he was when he ran third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 2014, the smallish bay gelding is even more on point this year, winning three of his five starts with his only two losses coming at the 1-mile distance.
Yet if you ask the Good Friends crew what Private Zone's biggest achievement is, they don't rehash his breakout win in the 2013 Grade I Vosburgh Stakes for trainer Doug O'Neill or his most recent 33/4-length victory in the Grade I Forego Stakes on Aug. 29 for his current conditioner Jorge Navarro.
What they will talk about is the change in Douglas' mindset and his renewed relationship with the sport that fueled and then took away his passion.
"When he had this catastrophic injury, usually they get depressed and certainly he did," said Joe Casciato, one of the partners in Good Friends Stable along with Dr. Hilton Gordon, Dave Flanzbaum, Larry Slavin, Dominick Auricchio and NHL Hall of Famer Denis Savard. "He's got two young boys and his wife and it was devastating to him. It took a couple of years for him to even watch horse racing and come back into the game he knows so much about.
Added Casciato's son Jack, "Rene has found a way to be positive, and this horse has brought him a lot of life. Instead of shunning his friends and family and going to a dark place — and he was there for a while — he's back."
Douglas readily admits Panama is not where one mines for racing gold. Purse money is a pittance "and a lot of horses get bad habits over there."
Still, his first post-accident venture into racing came when he purchased the horse Golden Moka from Panama on behalf of the Good Friends partnership. Golden Moka would win just one of eight races in North America but that lone win came in the 2010 $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes at Fort Erie.
"You could see a little change in his mind," Casciato said of Douglas. "It wasn't like 'how could this happen to me?'"
Private Zone, on the other hand, was equal parts freak and head case. In the span of a couple weeks in April 2012, he won a Grade I race in Panama then put the brakes on while leading in another top-level contest, letting the field run right by him.
"In Panama, he was running with the full blinkers," Douglas said. "I wanted him to see more. I knew he liked to see another horse next to him, to compete with another horse next to him. And by having full blinkers, he couldn't see the other horse outside of him.
"Once we got him in the cheater blinkers he was a different horse. After that it was experience. He's a horse with a big heart. He just refuses to get beat."
Before Private Zone ever won a race for Good Friends Stable he was part of a massive triumph. Though winless in his first eight starts in the States, Private Zone was sent to Dubai for a start in the 2013 $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen where he finished ninth.
It is understatement to say travel is not easy for Douglas. His lithium battery-powered wheelchair is a nightmare for airlines. But he and his wife, Natalia, made the journey to Meydan Racecourse and for the first time since he lay on the Arlington surface with his livelihood gone and his life in the balance, Douglas was at a racetrack willing on one of his own.
"That was very emotional and it was ... it was very special," Douglas said. "I wanted nothing to do with racing after my accident. I really blocked everything out. I'm not saying I was a different person, but I didn't have the love anymore for racing.
"I'm definitely starting back. The love is there. Private Zone did a lot for everybody, not just me. He did make me happier and at the same time make them happier."
Douglas is unsure if he will be able to travel from his home in Florida to Keene land this week. Regardless, it won't stop the veteran rider from calling on all his ability to get his charge home.
"Being there or not, I'm going to ride Private Zone like I'm on top of him," he said.