ST. PETERSBURG — For Cal Holland Jr., it was time to look back and move ahead.
With Patriot kennel star sprinter Venus Espinosa having clinched a berth in the $50,000 Fall Sprint Stakes finale at Derby Lane, Holland and wife Joyce had a family meeting days before the Sept. 29 title race.
"We talked about our kennel and what it needs to do," Cal said. "This (Fall Sprint) was big. When I took this job, I was here to win races and to win stakes races. This was another one we needed to do."
Venus Espinosa didn't let Cal down. The greyhound had a dream trip in what has become a dream meet. He was first out of the starting box, never trailed and showed his heart in the final yards, holding off defending champion Craigie I Am Jak and Call Me Ishmael by less than a length. It was Venus Espinosa's first stakes victory and the second for Cal since joining Patriot in December. (He won the St. Petersburg Consolation Derby on June 30 with Art Allen.)
"(Cal's) passion is these dogs, and he wants to make Vinny (Savill, kennel owner) very proud of him," Joyce said. "My husband and I are best friends. He eats, sleeps and dreams of the greyhounds. That's his livelihood, and that's how he looks at it."
Cal, 47, led Patriot to a record-setting 333 wins in his first meet, which ended June 30. Now with Venus Espinosa leading the way, Patriot is again the track's No. 1 kennel with 172 victories through Thursday, 39 in front of Red Oak Racing.
Venus Espinosa, who turns 3 years old Wednesday, is Derby Lane's top dog. He has 15 wins from 23 starts and has clocked the meet's best 550-yard time, 30.40 seconds. Winning the Fall Sprint served as redemption for the 76-pound male out of a litter by Kiowa Mon Manny and Sol Venus.
In the 2011 Fall Sprint Stakes, Venus Espinosa injured an ankle in the semifinals. He was sidelined the following seven months and rehabilitated at the farm of Tom Taplin in Abilene, Kan. Venus Espinosa then showed he was ready for racing again, not retirement.
"When he first came back here (in April), I saw a little bit of spark in him in a schooling race," Cal said. "He looked awesome, and I knew he had the talent. I just didn't know he would blossom into what he is now. He is one of the easiest dogs I've ever worked with, and I have worked with a lot of dogs in my time."
Owned by Kay Smith and Savill, Venus Espinosa has 35 victories from 93 career starts. He won nine consecutive races from June 29 to July 28.
MORE DOGS: Floyd & Porter kennel sprinter M's Free Agent, winner of the 2011 T.L. Weaver Memorial Challenge, has been retired. He finished with 53 victories from 196 starts. … Derby Lane will have a 15-race Columbus Day matinee performance Monday. There will be no evening racing, but the track will remain open for poker and simulcast wagering.