By Jennie Rees from The Louisville Courier-Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Owner Joe Casciato says it was pretty much a favor to Rene Douglas when a group of the former jockey’s Chicago buddies three years ago bought an unassuming-looking and quirky horse who’d been racing in Panama.

Private Zone had won a maiden race by 12 lengths, and also lost allowance races by 14 and 16 lengths. He then won a Grade I race by three-quarters of a length, and subsequently was last by 40.

Casciato would have been satisfied for Private Zone to prove a nice allowance horse in the U.S. Instead, the group known as Good Friends Stable campaigns no worse than the second choice for the $1.5 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint, with $2.6 million-earner Private Zone and the 3-year-old Runhappy favored in the six-furlong race Oct. 31 at Keeneland.

“Rene called me and said, ‘Put the boys together. We’ve got a horse we’ve got to buy in Panama,” Casciato said Sunday at Keeneland, where he and his son Jack watched Private Zone work five-eighths of a mile in 59 seconds. “So we sent the money. It was as simple as that. We didn’t know what we were doing. We did it because he asked. Obviously it worked out for all of us.”

But who knew? Casciato recalls they paid “$50,000, $60,000” for the gelding, adding with a laugh, “We always overpay … Rene said, ‘I see a lot in this horse.’”

Casciato, a former Chicago judge, is the lawyer representing Douglas in his pending suit against Arlington Park over the jockey becoming paralyzed in a 2009 spill after hurling to the Polytrack surface. The other partners in Private Zone are Dr. Hilton Gordon, restaurateur Dave Flanzbaum, NHL Hall of Famer Denis Savard, Larry Slavin and Dominick Auricchio.

“When he had his catastrophic injury, usually they get depressed. And he did,” Joe Casciato said of Douglas, a long-time friend who won 3,587 races as a jockey, including the 1996 Belmont Stakes on Editor’s Note. “He’s got young boys and his wife, and it was devastating to him. It took a couple of years for him to even watch a horse race and then to come back into the game he knows so much about.”

Douglas first bought the friends a horse in Panama named Golden Moka, with whom they won Canada’s $500,000 Prince of Wales Stakes.

“You could see a little change in his mind,” Casciato said of Douglas. “It wasn’t like ‘how can this happen to me?’ He had his hard times. Still does.”

“It would be pretty easy for someone in Rene’s position to push himself away from their family and friends,” said Jack Casciato, also an attorney and who used to be Douglas’ regular golf partner. “Rene went through a lot of dark days. This horse and he are very similar. They’re both courageous. I think they complement each other.

“Rene has had a lot of courage to lose that part of his life, to go from being a top jockey to being in a wheelchair. This horse has brought him a lot of life. … He’s back and this horse has rejuvenated him. He’s an inspiration, a great role model and friend to many people around the track.”

Douglas had not been to a racetrack since his accident when he traveled to Dubai to watch Private Zone in the $2 million Golden Shaheen in 2013.

“I really didn’t want to have anything to do with the racetrack since my accident,” he said by phone from South Florida, where he lives. “I blocked out everything. I’m not saying I was a different person, but I didn’t have the love for racing. These guys helped me get through the hard times after my accident. I wanted to give back to them, and told them I’d get them a good horse.

“… I’m not 100 percent. I’d love to be more involved (in racing), but I have other things to do. But the love is there. The accident was hard to swallow — your life changing in one minute.”

Douglas, who is from Panama, knew about Private Zone because his brother Rogelio trained him. He was known to take a sharp turn out of the gate and run through the rail. He’d pull himself up in a race.

“It got to a point where he was getting worse,” Douglas said. “He was hard to train. He had to go in company, and sometimes he didn’t want to train. Sometimes you had to run him without even training. Finally he gelded him, and that didn’t work. He was still the same.

“At the same time, I saw different things about him. I knew I could correct the stuff. I know Panama. Other horses get bad habits over there. I knew I could bring him here and start training him like he was a little baby again and teach him right. He’d already proved he could run.”

Still, Douglas was selective in what race video he sent his friends.

“I didn’t show them the race when he was in front by five, and he decided not to run anymore and put on the brakes,” he said. “I knew if I showed him those races, they’d back out. I only showed them the races where he was running green.

“They probably thought I was crazy like Private Zone. But I knew I had the right horse.”

After starting out 0-for-8 for his new owners, Private Zone has captured seven of 13 starts and three of his last four. His triumphs include a quartet of Grade I races and the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes on the Kentucky Derby undercard. He also finished third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita, and this year was turned over to Jorge Navarro after being trained in California by Doug O’Neill and in the East by Philadelphia-based Alfredo Velazquez.

“Doug O’Neill did a great job with him — got him to train the right way,” Douglas said. “Finally we got the blinkers to wear he can see other horses. After that, he was more experienced. He’s just a horse with a big heart.”

Douglas says he’s not sure if he’ll be at Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup because of transportation difficulties.

“Being there or not, I’m just going act like I’m on top of him,” he said.