In horse racing terms, Grant and Greta Hays have had a rough trip. They have two young children, both severely autistic.
"After we had Jack, we wanted to have another child," Grant Hays says. "We thought the odds of having a second with autism were really low."
Jack is 6, Dylan 2. Neither speaks, except on rare spontaneous occasions. According to their father, they are antisocial kids, which is not unusual with autistic children. Grant says it creates a life of stress and tension, and cites research that says something like 85% of parents with autistic children get divorced.
The marriage of Grant and Greta apparently is going in the other direction. This is the story of how and why. It is also the story of a big, old gelded thoroughbred named Spot the Diplomat, who, through a series of coincidental circumstances, has carried this family to its own winner's circle.
Spot the Diplomat had 41 races in a decent but unspectacular career. He won seven, was in the money in 14 more and totaled $342,231 in purses. He even ran in a couple of graded races, including the Grade I Bing Crosby at Del Mar on July 27, 2008.
But Spot will not likely make the Hall of Fame, at least not for his on-track performance. In his four-year career, he was ridden by 11 jockeys and ran in claiming races 18 of his last 20 starts.
He was owned most recently by Summit Racing, of which Bob Ike, nationally known handicapper and columnist, is a partner.
After two strong races this spring for Summit, Spot fractured a sesamoid in a workout and his racing career, but not his life, was over. While he healed on a nearby farm, Ike and his partners started thinking about a permanent home for him.
Ike occasionally filled in on one of the Sunday morning racing shows on AM 830, where Grant Hays was a producer. Hays knew lots about radio, but little about racing. But he, like an entire nation, had been captivated by the Zenyatta story and had started to pay attention.
Last spring, Hays took his family to a horse ranch in Texas run by author Rupert Isaacson, whose book on autistic children interacting with animals, "The Horse Boy," was made into a movie. The Hays family spent time around animals and began to see the positives of interaction that Isaacson wrote about.
"Jack speaks no words," Grant Hays says, "but we got off the plane and he turned to me and said, 'Texas.' I was stunned."
The family stress level decreased dramatically there, but went right back to normal when they returned to Los Angeles. Hays asked another of the radio hosts, Jay Privman, about the chances of taking his sons to see Zenyatta. Privman arranged it, Zenyatta was quiet and gentle with the boys and they returned for another visit. Trainer John Shirreffs soon had them up and riding on a stable pony.
That experience convinced Hays that his family needed a more rural life. He was also convinced that he needed animals, and probably a horse, for his sons. Deciding to live off savings for awhile, he leased a three-acre plot south of Austin, Texas, and started shedding the trappings of life in L.A.
"We got rid of four TV sets," he says. "We live in a single-wide mobile home. It is a lot less than we were used to in L.A."
In a conversation with Ike before he left, Hays said he was looking for a horse. Ike said he and his partners had one.
They all went to see Spot the Diplomat at his rehab farm near Murrieta.
"Jack stood directly behind the horse," Ike says. "I was kind of scared. Thoroughbreds can be touchy. But the horse never flinched, and I knew then that this might work."
Grant Hays says, "Dylan ran under his legs and Spot never twitched."
Spot the Diplomat had a new home. The Hays family had another 6-year-old. The horse was shipped to Texas, paid for by Summit Racing, in late August. That was a month after the Hays family had arrived.
"In Los Angeles, we were a stressed-out family," Hays says. "Now, we are all happy. The boys are constantly with Spot. They play around him, ride him, sometimes sit on him for two or three hours at a time.
"He is an angel. He is perfectly behaved at all times. He's protective of the kids. It's almost phenomenal."
Hays says they have found a place where his children are happier. He says all the doctors and specialists they saw provided very little direction and insight.
"So we created our own world," he says.
Spot the Diplomat has no Triple Crowns or Breeders' Cups in his resume. But he still gets to the wire first every day on the Hays family land in Texas.