During my first career as a commercial banker in Southern California, I had the great pleasure to finance a Santa Monica Mexican-food restaurant for a kind and colorful man. In the banking industry, restaurants, no matter how widely known, are generally considered longshots — financial risks that are rarely worth taking. I consulted others, built a case and convinced management that the reward of a financial return would be worth the risk. It was a fun undertaking and, over time, proved to be a wonderful opportunity for all of the parties involved.
While at the closing luncheon, over a plate of his delicious tacos, my new client convinced me to join him for breakfast one morning at Santa Anita Park to watch thoroughbred horses train and work out. He said his son-in-law was a good trainer there and insisted he would be famous one day.
That was more than ten years ago.
The trainer turned out to be Doug O’Neill and the rock star in his barn at the time was Lava Man, a gelding who had been claimed for $50,000. Lava Man would ultimately come up from the claiming ranks to distinguish himself as a multi-millionaire, amassing more than $5 million in purse earnings, winning unprecedented combinations of races with power, determination and inspiring grit. He would establish himself as an incredible racehorse and inspire a following of fans and supporters like no other. The horse gave O’Neill, now a dual-classic-winning trainer, a deeply felt confidence that sealed his commitment to the Sport of Kings.
It would be quite some time later, though, when, having been invited by a friend, I would stand on a chair pushed up against the hedge of the Santa Anita infield to witness first-hand the magnificence and beauty of the thoroughbred in full stride. There I stood, balancing on Spice Girl-heeled boots, beer in hand, completely mesmerized by the power and athleticism of the longshot Tiago’s brilliant three year-old body as he overtook the favorite, King of the Roxy, to win the 2007 Santa Anita Derby. We were so close to the action, it felt as though we could simply reach right out and touch the horses as they flew by us.
The excitement was tangible and we were hooked.
I remember betting that day and knowing so little about it that, upon the advice of a total stranger, I asked the pari-mutuel clerk to “please put my horses in a box.” I chose my two horses from the jockey’s silks that were displayed on the back of the free t-shirt we were given upon entering the park that day. These two magnificent animals transformed my $10 wager into $957 in just over a minute — a quicker windfall than most financial investments I’d seen.
My experience was not typical. I was fortunate and naïve. But it just might be the kind of outlook needed for this year’s Santa Anita Derby. According to the best handicappers and betting experts in the industry, the field is wide open this year — and I agree.
To start with, the journey of a young thoroughbred is deliberate, inspirational and extraordinary. Thousands make the attempt, but few rise to the ranks of the truly special and enjoy the highest level of success in the sport. In order to achieve these heights, they take the road less traveled and reach for the stars: the Triple Crown of racing, beginning with the Kentucky Derby. The Santa Anita Derby is one of the key stops along the way to prep for the Derby’s worldwide stage.
Doesn’t it blow your mind? In the United States during 2014, the Jockey Club identified 21,334 thoroughbred foal registrations. Each of those adorable, inspiring photos we see daily on social media of frolicking thoroughbred colts and fillies represent a potential candidate for greatness on the racetrack. Breeding gives them a start. Presence, opportunity and training give them a springboard along the way. But talent and professionalism carry them into the realm of greatness. Some never emerge onto the trail, but for those who do, in just a few short years, only 20 will earn a position in the starting gate of America’s Kentucky Derby, the coveted once-in-a-lifetime test for three year-olds.
One of this year’s key prep race, the Santa Anita Derby, will showcase 13 of the top equine contenders.
It’s a tremendously exciting Grade 1 race for three-year-old thoroughbreds and carries a $1 million purse. Run at 1 1/8 miles (nine furlongs) on dirt, the race offers the winner 100 Kentucky Derby points, essentially assuring him/her a position in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. There are 40, 20 and 10 points respectively awarded to the second, third and fourth finishers as well.
Since its inception in 1935, ten winners of the Santa Anita Derby have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby and seven horses that have lost the race went on to win at Churchill Downs. In 1978, Affirmed ridden by retired Hall of Fame rider Steve Cauthen went all the way, winning not only the Santa Anita Derby, but the coveted Triple Crown series of racing as well.
Ten years later, in 1988, the filly Winning Colors, ridden by another Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens, won both the Santa Anita and Kentucky Derbies. Stevens, at 54, will be the oldest rider in this year’s Santa Anita Derby. He returned to riding from a December left-hip replacement surgery in March and has recently announced that 2017 will likely be his final year in the saddle. The all-time record holder for wins in this race is looking to push his total to ten, breaking from the outside post (13) on Royal Mo for trainer John Sherriffs.
At morning line odds of 10-1, and having worked well on Monday with Stevens, Royal Mo is entering the race after winning the Robert B. Lewis stakes and finishing ninth in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Sherriffs also trains the second favorite, Gormley (9-2), who has been visible in his learning curve, vacillating between winning well and performing flatly in his races.
Bob Baffert, the trainer with the most Santa Anita Derby wins, is saddling three horses for the race — Reach the World (5-1) with Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith aboard, American Anthem (5-1) with Martin Garcia riding, and Irish Freedom (20-1) with Raphael Bejarano in the irons. Baffert’s top derby contender, Mastery, was recently sidelined with a condylar fracture after winning the San Felipe Stakes on March 11.
The aforementioned O’Neill has four horses running in this year’s big race and, according to the barn, Lava Man will not be escorting any of them this year like he did in 2012 with I’ll Have Another, who parlayed a win in the Santa Anita Derby into a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May. This weekend, O’Neill will be represented by the morning line favorite, Iliad (7-2), ridden by Flavien Prat, and three longshots — Term of Art (12-1) with veteran rider Tyler Baze in the irons, So Conflated (15-1) with former Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Mario Gutierrez aboard, and Milton Freewater (30-1) with Tiago Pereira riding.
Iliad has earned $227,345 with two wins in four starts and comes to the O’Neill barn from an owner transfer, after his connections recently parted ways with Baffert. Enthusiasm is high at the O’Neill barn for the colt’s chances to win this Saturday. As noted above, O’Neill has previously won the Santa Anita Derby with I’ll Have Another in 2012. He also won with Goldencents in 2013.
Jerry Hollendorfer sends out Battle of Midway (5-1) with seasoned rider Corey Nakatani up. Nakatani, in 2006, was Lava Man’s rider and knows Santa Anita’s dirt track well.
Anything can happen in horse racing and oftentimes it does. This year might be one of those times. So, grab a plate of tacos, flip a coin, stand on a chair and go for the gusto. Lots of hopes are riding on this race and at least one thing is certain: it’ll be a great ride, a beautiful day and an exciting moment in Santa Anita Derby history.