Marie Ortolan Bar can succinctly sum up the fairytale she is living with colt Cuatro De Julio, this season's fastest 2-year-old trotter thanks to his near harness racing world-record-equaling 1:51.4 mile two weeks ago, and winner of eight of 10 races as he heads to Sunday's $250,000championship at the Red Mile.
"It's a story about faith, love, and friendship," said Marie, who trains Cuatro De Julio. "He is a gift. It is a wonderful story."
Cuatro De Julio arrived in Marie's life when she most needed a gift like him. The colt was bred by partner' Dream With Me Stable and raised by Marie in Kentucky. She realized quickly he was different. She realized, too, he was a horse to change her life.
For more than a decade, Marie battled a variety of debilitating health conditions, from blood disorders to a rare congenital heart defect known as Ebstein's anomaly. She nearly died on multiple occasions and was forced to give up training horses for the better part of eight years. She still worked with babies at Dubois' breeding farm, but her illnesses had taken a toll on her physically and mentally.
"When you fall very sick, they fix one problem but then another one comes," Marie said. "It is not fun to be sick. Your spirit wants to go, but your body says no. I was so weak. One day you say enough."
Marie's faith helped sustain her during this period. "If you do not have God in your life, you have nothing," she said.
And on March 22, 2018, a colt by Trixton out of the Ready Cash mare Clarabelle arrived and renewed her strength and outlook. It was Cuatro De Julio, or Fourth of July, which is Dubois' birthday.
"I would say when he was one month old, he was very special; very special, very smart," Marie said. "When he was four months, he would follow me everywhere. I would say, go play with your friends. But he followed me everywhere. He was the dominant one. He was always the first for everything.
"The way he moved was not so beautiful, there were others more elegant, but what I loved was the shoulder, the neck, the bottom, and he was never sick. He was never weak. I told everybody, when he was seven months, I have a good horse. I told everybody that this one is special. If you meet Cuatro, you will fall in love."
So special, Marie decided to get her trainer's license again. With the help of numerous friends, including Judi and Henry Lunsford and Lee and Al Eferstein, she began training Cuatro De Julio.
"This horse gave her the thrill and happiness and the will to come back and train again," said Lee Eferstein, whose husband Al has become Cuatro De Julio's regular driver. "He brought all of that back for her. He is just so special for so many reasons."
Said Marie, "You never train a horse alone. You train a good horse with good people around you, people who love the horse. Without Lee, I'm nothing. She gave me my confidence back. Without all the friends and advice, I'm nothing. Everybody helps. We are a team."
Cuatro De Julio's career began on the Kentucky fairs circuit, where he won six of seven races including the season-end final at Lexington's Red Mile. His only loss came in his debut when Marie drove him at the Ballard County Fair.
"That was a very bad idea," Marie said, laughing. "This horse is not easy. If you fight with this horse, you will lose."
Following that first start, Al Eferstein, a veteran of the Kentucky fairs, took the seat behind Cuatro De Julio. After sweeping the remainder of their fair circuit starts, they tackled the Kentucky Sire Stakes. Cuatro De Julio won his first KYSS start, made a misstep in the second, and rebounded by nearly matching Walner's world record for a 2-year-old trotting colt on a mile track in the most recent.
"People are always asking me, when are you going to put up a catch driver?" Marie said. "He goes very well with Al. We won eight races easy. When something works, why would you change?"
Following the Kentucky Sire Stakes championship, Cuatro De Julio is eligible to the Grand Circuit races at Red Mile and the Breeders Crown at Harrah's Hoosier Park. But there is no reason to look to the future. The present is a wonderful story as it is.
"Working with horses is a passion," Marie said. "We all have a dream and we have to follow the dream, but there is a lot of sacrifice. The recompense now is Cuatro. This horse saved my life."
Racing begins at 1 p.m. (EDT) Sunday at Red Mile and the Kentucky Sire Stakes finals are the first eight races. Following are the morning-line favorites in each final, in race order.
Three-year-old male trotters, Beads, 1-1.
Two-year-old filly pacers, Making Waves, 4-5.
Two-year-old male pacers, Perfect Sting, 6-5.
Three-year-old filly trotters, Hypnotic AM, 5-2.
Three-year-old male pacers, Tall Dark Stranger, 4-5.
Two-year-old filly trotters, Darlene Hanover, 5-2.
Three-year-old filly pacers, Reflect With Me, 6-5.
Two-year-old male trotters, Dancinginthedark M, 2-1.
For complete entries, click here.
by Ken Weingartner, for the USTA