Raising the stakes
Horse trainer Jeff Bonde sets his sights on a successful racing season at this year's Alameda County Fair
For Pleasanton horse trainer Jeff Bonde, it's pretty obvious why being successful during the Alameda County Fair is so important.
Actually, there are two reasons.
"It's more meaningful to be able to win in your hometown," said the 54-year-old Bonde, who was raised in Pleasanton and graduated from Amador Valley High School. "You get to see a lot of people who you might not normally see. You definitely aim harder in your hometown."
But the single dad of four boys, who range from 8 to 15, has added incentive to win when the Alameda County Fair comes to Pleasanton.
"That carnival is not cheap," Bonde said with a laugh. "You end up having to rent a box because they have friends come over. But they love the fair. It's one of their highlights of the year."
Bonde will have his training prowess on display locally from July 1-19, when this year's extended version of the Alameda County Fair takes place. There will be 15 days of racing this year, as opposed to the 12 days in the past. Racing will take place over three weeks, with the track running Wednesday through Sunday during the 19 days of the fair.
Bonde is a local favorite when the fair rolls into town, partly because of his talent as a trainer and partly because of local ties. That he went into the business was almost predetermined, as the industry runs deep in the Bonde bloodlines.
Bonde grew up around horses, with his father Duke Bonde Jr., uncle Bob Dupont and brother Gary all working shoeing horses for years, while his grandfather Duke Sr. was a trainer.
"I had two loves in life," Bonde said. "I wanted to be a football player and I loved horses. I never grew, so it just kind of evolved into (horse racing). My father taught me how to shoe, but I was most interested in the competitive side (of horse racing). The older you get, you might not be able to compete yourself, but you still can with your horses."
Bonde, who started hanging out around the track at 12, began working for trainer Jerry Dutton around the age of 15, then took out of his first trainer license at 18. He's had a number of career highlights, picking up his first graded stakes win in 1992, taking the San Francisco Handicap with Athenia Green, who was also the National Claimer of the Year. In 1999, Bonde saddled Spain in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where the horse finished fourth. In 2001, Bonde led all Northern California trainers with stakes win, taking nine, with the biggest being San Nicolas in the $100,000 Forty-Niner Handicap.
Some of Bonde's other top horses have included: High Tech Friend, Epic Honor, Red Sky's, Mr. Doubledown, General Royal and We Are Strike Ng. The best of the lot may have been Mr. Doubledown, who after five stakes wins in 1998, appeared headed for the Breeders' Cup Sprint before being sidelined.
"I've been hired by some people who were big in the game," Bonde said. "I've raced in almost every state and been in a couple of foreign countries to buy some horses. It's been a great life as far as I'm concerned."
There's no doubting Bonde's had a successful career up to this point, but there's still the lingering dream of running a horse at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
"I don't know of any trainer where it's not his dream to win the Kentucky Derby," Bonde said. "It's still the measuring stick of a champion."
Bonde is the first to admit, it's an uphill battle for a trainer not named Jerry Hollendorfer in Northern California to have a Derby starter.
"When you have our ZIP code in Northern California, you can't go out and buy a ready-made (Kentucky Derby) horse," Bonde said of the large amounts of money it takes to buy a championship horse. "We have to go out, buy young horses and hope one blossoms into a Casual Lies type of horse."
Casual Lies was the Pleasanton-based horse owned and trained by Shelley Reilly, which finished second by a length in the 1992 Kentucky Derby, capturing the hearts and imagination of the racing world. The best chance for Bonde to take his shot at the Derby as he mentioned, is to find that magical 2-year-old who develops into one of the top in the nation the next year. And Bonde is certainly among the elite 2-year-old trainers in the region. Every year, Bonde trots out an impressive array of young horses in Pleasanton, and is always a threat to take each of the 2-year-old races at the fair.
"I have a lot of them," Bonde said of 2-year-olds. "There's sort of an art (to training them). I've been lucky buying the right ones over the years."
Bonde's stable this year as usual, is a young, but talented group. So far in 2009, he's run six 2-year-olds, taking four races and running third in the other two. Which horses out the talented lot will run in Pleasanton is still to be determined. Some will probably make their debut during the fair.
"I've got several more getting close (to running)," he said. "I'm not exactly sure who's going to run here. Our hope is we will have a good shot (at the fair 2-year-old stakes). But if you're going to win with a 2-year-old, you're going to have to have the best prepared horse. Sometimes it's not the best horse, but the most prepared horse which wins."
That means a lot of work, which Bonde certainly turns in, rarely seeing a day off.
"If you're trying to stay on top, there's not many (days off)," he said. "A jockey and a trainer get judged by every day of their life. It's a competitive business, where money is a big issue. If you're not producing, they'll go somewhere else."
Not only is it often seven days a week of work, but it's hardly banker's hours as well. Bonde's typical day begins around 5 a.m. at the stable, checking on his horses, before getting them out on to the track for some work. In addition, there's an endless amount of paperwork and correspondence with the owners of the horses. Maybe the morning business wraps up around 11, but the day is far from over.
"Then in the afternoon, comes the horseracing," Bonde said.
This means heading over to Golden Gate Fields in Albany for the races. Even at the end of a day's racing, it's back to the stable for a final check on the horses.
"On dark days, you might get done by 11 a.m.," he said. "But on race days, you might not get home until 9 p.m. Then you do it all over again the next day.''
Bonde is hoping an increase in racing dates for Pleasanton may help shorten some of those long days. With Bay Meadows closed, it appears Pleasanton will pick up some additional days of racing outside of the annual Alameda Country Fair meeting. It's a win-win situation for Bonde, as not only will he spend more time in his hometown, but he also sees Pleasanton benefiting as a city from the increased racing schedule locally.
"I am very hopeful that occurs," he said. "First, it will be much more pleasant to run here than in Albany. And the downtown area needs help with the current economy. The people who come out to attend the races would go downtown to the stores and the restaurants--anything like that would help the city."
Being home more each day is crucial to Bonde as his boys get older. And getting older means they are closer to choosing a career path, which may or may not involve the horse racing industry.
"The boys all like animals, but they are very much into sports," he said. "Whatever they want to do, I'm behind them and will be happy to help in any way I can. When you decide on your profession, you better like what you're going to do."
Alameda County Fair
Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Fri.-Sun. 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.
July 4 - 10a.m. - 9 p.m.
noon until closing
Tickets and promotions:
Military Appreciation Weekend - July 3-5
(Free fair admission for you and a guest with valid military I.D. Veterans free with proof of service.)
$2 Tuesdays: July 7 and 14
(Admission is $2)
Seniors Free Wednesdays: July 1, 8 and 15
(62 and up receive free admission)
Kids Free Fridays: July 3, 10 and 17
(Kids 12 and under receive free admission)