Arabian star Valiant Boy one of a kind

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To know Valiant Boy is to love him. Ask his trainer Lizzie Merryman about him, and you’ll get plenty of reasons why.

“He’s highly opinionated about how things are going to work,” she said. “He’s the smartest horse I’ve ever been around, way smarter than most people I’ve ever met. He has his world clocked out, he watches people and if he doesn’t like you, forget it.”

Valiant Boy likes Merryman and exercise rider Ali Rawles, and the attention he gets around Fair Hill Training Center. He also loves his job, which is racehorse – all racehorse. Valiant Boy is, however, not a Thoroughbred. The 7-year-old is an Arabian, one of the best in the world, has won eight consecutive races. He was supposed to try for a ninth Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park in Texas but snow canceled  his flight Thursday and mechanical problems scuttled Friday’s plane. Trained at Fair Hill by Merryman, whose Thoroughbred string made room for two Arabians last year, Valiant Boy eyes a few other major stops on the Arabian racing calendar this year.

The Sam Houston race was supposed to be his first start of 2015 and a potential launching pad to bigger things including a possible start in Dubai later this month. Saturday’s race is also the first leg of the new Arabian Triple Jewel Series, with races at Pleasanton (July) and Los Alamitos (September) in California, which offers a $150,000 bonus to the high-point earner.

“He’s in such a tough race on Saturday because it’s not his distance,” said Merryman. “He’s very much a distance horse and there are a lot of really hardcore sprinters in there. Having said that, he’s doing well and he has really liked the Tapeta this winter. That’s been a relief. We were really worried about that. He hadn’t done much Tapeta training.”

Like many other tracks in the region, Fair Hill has dealt with the weather this winter. The dirt track has been closed for some time, other than to walking/jogging, but the synthetic Tapeta surface has enabled trainers to keep horses going. Valiant Boy comes into Saturday’s race off steady gallops and works – including a 5-furlong move in 1:11 1/5 Sunday.

Yes, you read that right. Arabians are smaller and slower than Thoroughbreds, though that doesn’t mean they’re all that different to train – though Valiant Boy is probably a poor example. Call him an individual, no matter the breed.

“He trains himself, he tells you when it’s time to work, he won’t pull up when you want him to, you work in his gameplan,” Merryman said. “People say Thoroughbreds are more agreeable, they don’t tell you how they’re training the way he does, but that’s probably just him. I’ve never had a horse that just totally got to do whatever he wanted every day. He’s a riot.”

Merryman has taken to riding alongside Valiant Boy on her lead pony, Chucky, and that’s helped with warm-ups and jogging before gallops. Otherwise, Valiant Boy trains like a Thoroughbred – mostly. A typical training session starts with a long jog alongside Chucky. From there, anything can happen. Valiant Boy gallops, bucks, gallops, leaps, bucks, gallops. Rawles hangs on, laughs, steers. Merryman tries not to watch.

“Knock it off or you’re going to fall down,” Rawles hollered at her mount the other morning. Merryman values the rider’s expertise. That’s Rawles and her star headed off the track recently in the photo (by Kathee Rengert).

“He’s a wicked bucker,” said the trainer. “I wouldn’t be very psyched to put somebody else on him. You need a rider who can sit some pretty good bucks. I think it’s just unique to him, that’s his personality. We tried a standing martingale on him and that was a disaster. We couldn’t get him out of the barn.”

Merryman, whose Thoroughbreds have included dual Maryland Million Turf winner Roadhog among other stakes winners, wound up with a champion Arabian last year when Sharon Clark insisted. Clark, who operates Rigbie Farm in Harford County, Md. and is a racing manager for clients with Thoroughbreds and Arabians, visited Merryman’s barn while looking for a trainer.

Clark asked if Merryman would take two Arabians. Merryman didn’t think she was qualified, but also didn’t have the stall space. Eventually, Clark asked again and Merryman made room. Valiant Boy and Burn Baby Burn, who also runs at Sam Houston Saturday, joined the stable.

Close to home, they race at Delaware Park in the summer. They’ve also both run in Texas and California. Last year, Valiant Boy won all four starts – Grade 1 stakes at Churchill Downs and Delaware (with Joe Rocco Jr. and Victor Carrasco aboard), and stakes at Los Alamitos and Lone Star Park. In 2013, the French-bred son of Darweesh went 3-for-3. Owned by Guy Neivens, Valiant Boy is a former Arabian Horse of the Year and has won 12 of his 20 career starts with $316,835 earned.

Merryman paid as much credit to Valiant Boy’s brain as his body for the success.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever been around a horse who loved being a racehorse more, Thoroughbred or Arabian,” she said. “When he runs his races, he’s so tenacious. That makes him pretty tough.”

NOTES: Valiant Boy’s and Burn Baby Burn’s FedEx flight from Baltimore to Houston was canceled because of snow Thursday, but Merryman was hopeful of a rescheduled trip Friday morning . . . The flight was rescheduled, but mechanical problems with the plane canceled it again and the horses were out of time to make Saturday’s race . . . The 1 1/4-mile Dubai Kahayla Classic, an invitational race set for the Dubai World Cup undercard at Meydan March 28, is worth $1 million.

Equibase Entries for Saturday’s race.