Jackson Bend hadn’t changed.
That’s what must have struck Stanley Gold.
Four years after the horse left the trainer’s barn at Calder Race Course, venturing forth to take on the big boys in the nation’s biggest races, he returned a few months ago looking and acting exactly the same.
“He walked back in the barn and it was like seeing an old friend,” Gold said. “He was just the same old Jackson.”
If their reunion culminates with a victory Saturday in Calder’s $350,000 Smile Sprint Handicap — part of a Summit of Speed card that is the highlight of the track’s summer meet — it really would be just like old times.
Under Gold’s care, Jackson Bend dominated the 2-year-old racing scene at Calder in 2009, sweeping the Florida Stallion Stakes series, before joining trainer Nick Zito’s barn in an ownership move designed to prepare the horse for the Triple Crown series.
Jackson Bend finished 12th in the 2010 Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness, and remained in Zito’s care until an injury led to the horse’s retirement last year.
But the horse healed, was brought out of retirement and was returned to Gold by owners Jacks or Better Farm and Robert LaPenta.
“You’re always following them and thinking about them, and then you get the horse back and it’s interesting,” Gold said.
“He’s older and probably smarter. But it’s kind of like he was the same horse that he was.”
Gold, who worked under Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Croll when he started out in the 1970s, has been so successful developing 2-year-olds at Calder that some of his horses have outgrown their britches and moved on to other trainers so that — like Jackson Bend — they can pursue bigger races elsewhere in the country.
It’s not that Gold doesn’t travel outside South Florida.
He did with Eclipse champion Awesome Feather when she won the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.
He just prefers to focus most of his attention on his Calder operation.
“To walk away from the whole barn and spend time [on the road] with another horse wouldn’t be the right thing to do,” Gold said. “I would be neglecting the whole barn for one horse.”
It’s a philosophy shared by the late Frank Gomez, a legendary South Florida trainer who developed three eventual Eclipse champions — Smile, Princess Rooney and Cherokee Run — as young horses but surrendered them to northern trainers in order to devote his full attention to his Calder outfit.
Jackson Bend isn’t the only returnee to Gold’s barn for the Summit of Speed. He’s also getting back Fort Loudon, a 4-year-old who is also racing in the six-furlong Smile.
Fort Loudon has won seven of 10 career starts at Calder and is 5 for 6 at that distance.
The Smile is brimming with talent, including 7-2 favorite Justin Phillip and 2012 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg in an expected field of 12.
South Florida-based trainer Marty Wolfson is sending out 11 horses on the Summit card, including five alone in the $350,000 Princess Rooney, a Grade I companion race to the Smile for fillies and mares.
Judy the Beauty
The program favorite, though, is Wesley Ward-trained Judy the Beauty, who has never finished worse than second in her nine career races.
Post time for the first race on Calder’s 11-race program is 12:50 p.m.
“This is an exceptional race,” Gold said of the Smile. “It’s going to be a crowded field with a full mix of everything, and luck and jockeys’ decisions are going to play a big part in the race.”
Gold, naturally, is hoping Jackson Bend and Fort Loudon perform for him Saturday the way they once did when they belonged in his care.
“It’s a nice punch to have,” he said.