May 23, 2009.
Denis Savard will always remember that date.
"Not a lot of people know this, but that's my wife and my anniversary," said the former Blackhawks star, coach and now team ambassador. "We were in Las Vegas for our anniversary."
And that's where they received the stunning news: longtime friend and perennial leading jockey Rene Douglas was paralyzed after a horrific fall at Arlington Park.
It changed everything.
It changed a strong bond between Douglas and a core group of friends, strengthening it even more. It also changed Douglas, who, before the fall, was as outgoing and friendly a person as you'd ever want to meet, but suddenly had to adjust to a new way of living.
Admittedly, there were some dark times.
"Of course, that's to be expected," Savard said. "Rene loved life. He loved to dress up. He's always been strong in front of us, but yeah, I could imagine he's had some down times. How can you not, you know?
"When you have a great wife like he has in Natalia … support is everything."
And that's just what Savard and a handful of close friends offered Douglas, doing what they could to keep his spirits up and letting him know they were always there for him.
Slowly but surely, it worked. And as a thank-you for all the support, Douglas in 2010, from his home in Florida, spotted a couple of horses racing in Panama that he decided the group should purchase.
The first was Golden Moka. The second was Private Zone, an erratic but talented 4-year-old, who on Saturday will run in the $2 million Golden Shaheen at Meydan Racecourse as part of Dubai World Cup day.
"He saw the horse on TV and made us buy him," Savard said. "Rene connected all of us.
"I hope he runs big for Rene, that's my big thing. That's what he wanted to do for us -- get us a nice horse and win us some races."
For the first time since his accident, Douglas will be on-track Saturday in Dubai along with the five other buddies who make up Good Friends Stable, hoping Private Zone can bring him back into what was once such familiar territory for him -- the winner's circle.
"It's a great story. I just want to see if he can get it done," Savard said. "Doing it for Rene would be awesome."
Returning to the racing game, albeit as an owner, seems to have done a world of good for Douglas.
"I do feel better," he told the Daily Racing Form this week in Dubai. "I don't know if it's this horse or what, but I'm feeling the confidence now."
"He's got a strong mind," Savard said of Douglas. "I think this will give him that extra boost.
"He can't wait. He got some hats made up for the group. He's on Facebook all the time, he likes to talk about it. He's excited about it. I'm happy. I can't wait to see him."
Nor can the other stable of friends -- Dave Flanzbaum, Hilton Gordon, Joe Casciato and Larry Slavin.
"There's a Frenchman, there's a Panamanian, an Italian, a Jewish person … you've got them all," Savard said. "My daughter (Tanya) is in films and she's going to make a movie out of this. She'll get all the scoops, all the insight and all that stuff.
"If he wins … wow. If this horse wins it'll be a film and it'll be one of the best films I believe because it's a true story."Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.