Craig Dollase is our main trainer on the West Coast and conditions stable star Awesome Gem. We sat down with the lifelong horseman to find out the scoop on his favorite runners, his training philosophy, the best place to find a good steak in Southern California - and, of course, his 2012 campaign plans for the Gem.
Craig heads to the Barretts 2-Year-Old in Training Sale with Terry and the rest of the WPT buying team next week. He’ll train any purchases we make out there.
Q. Let’s start with a few “get-to-know-you” questions. What’s your favorite food?
A. I’m a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I enjoy Italian food, but I’d say a good steak is best. The Derby is a popular restaurant here, and we also have a really good Ruth’s Chris - that’s one of my favorites in California.
Q. Favorite movie?
A. I really enjoyed the Rocky movies, from one all the way to the latest one. I’m a big fan of the underdog, that’s me.
Q. Favorite non-racing sporting event?
A. I’m a big football junkie, that’s for sure. I’m rooting for the Giants, that’s my team. My favorite team is the Raiders. There are a lot of Raiders haters out there but I’ve always been fan.
Q. Pet peeve?
A. Probably people talking behind my back. If you’ve got a problem with me, come talk to me. I’m easy to approach and I’m an open book. It’s a small community we’re in, so in this business, that face-to-face approach is key.
Q. Who introduced you to racing?
A. My parents - my father Wally was a trainer and I got the horse bug early on; it’s been a passion of mine ever since. On occasion I’ll call Pops up to ask for advice and he’s always willing to give it to me. My Dad was only one I ever worked for and has always been my mentor and a big inspiration in my career.
Q. Tell us about your training philosophy
A. I’m very hands-on at the barn, definitely a barn rat - I’m at the barn a lot. I’m real patient with all of my horses, I treat them all as individuals. I learned that from my father early on; you have to be patient and treat each horse as an individual, not assembly-line style.
Q. What’s the main thing you’re known for in the racing industry?
A. I pride myself on developing long-lasting horses. I’m not hard on a horse, I let them tell me when they’re ready and I try not to run them if they’re not 110 percent fit - when you ignore the signs, that’s how injuries happen. I pride myself on the fact that some of these older horses I’ve campaigned over the years are still running at seven or eight-years-old. Numerous runners in my barn are older and are still running competitively, and that’s a tribute to me and my staff being real patient and being pretty in tune with each runner.
Q. Who is your favorite all-time horse?
A. Am I allowed to have two? The first one would have to be Reraise, who got me my Breeders’ Cup Sprint win when I was a 27-year-old back in ‘98. I’d be remiss not to mention him because he got me on the map and up to the next level at that stage in the game. And my favorite current runner is Awesome Gem.
Q. Tell us a little about the ride you’ve been on with Awesome Gem
A. He’s a horseman’s dream. To have a horse like this in the barn to play at that level and be as competitive as he is a tribute to the horse, my staff, and the owners, too - everyone being patient and letting me give the horse the time he needs. It’s definitely a team effort with Awesome Gem, that’s for sure. We’ve been fortunate to get him to that elite level and he’s wonderful to be around - he’s like our barn mascot. When he leaves for rest on the farm, it’s a real big void with him being gone. When he’s back, it’s uplifting, a fun time. Being around him keeps your spirits up because he’s right there, one of those blue-collar horses that’s always willing and able and shows up every time. I wish I had a barn full of horses like Awesome Gem.
Q. What’s your fondest memory as WPT’s main trainer on the West Coast?
A. Winning the Hollywood Gold Cup with Awesome Gem as a 7-year-old was awesome, especially since that race was kind of a nemesis to me. I won it one year but got disqualified, then I was beaten a nose following year, so it was almost like I was owed a Gold Cup (laughs). I’d been right there with horses and when he finally came through and got it done, that was extra-special.
Q. Some people are surprised Gem’s still going strong. Are you?
A. Well, he’s the ripe young age of nine, and a lot of times these are uncharted waters with these kinds of horses. But he’s not just another older horse, he’s a very special individual, and if any horse at that age is up to the task, it’s Awesome Gem. We hope to get a race into him in late March and we’d love to take a swing at the Charles Town Classic. We’ll hand-pick our spots this year and won’t race him as much, but this is a horse who thrives on running.
Back to that individual thing - I know how he’s doing and what his demeanor is. He’s doing well and he’s very healthy. A lot of people out there say, “Why are you running a 9-year-old, doesn’t he deserve to be retired after all he’s done?” But this isn’t a normal 9-year-old or a tired 9-year-old or an unsound 9-year-old - this is a special horse and he’ll tell me if he’s not himself or if he’s not doing well and we’ll listen and do right by him. If there’s any indication that he’s not willing and able to run I’ll be the first person to take him out of training. He means so much to so many people - not just myself, but my family and our crew, as well as to the people at West Point Thoroughbreds and to his following. It’s great to see the well-wishers out there looking out for the best interests of racehorses - but everyone can rest assured that I’ve got ‘Gem’s back.