By CINDY TREJO
Before retiring from the world of banking, I had the opportunity to finance a piece of commercial property in Santa Monica, Calif. for a kind and colorful man with a great sense of humor.
He encouraged me at the closing luncheon to visit Santa Anita racetrack for breakfast one morning and meet his son-in-law; someone, he said, who was a good thoroughbred horse trainer and would probably be famous one day. That was seven years ago. the Trainer was Doug O’Neill.
The rock star in Doug’s barn at that time was Lava Man, a gelding who, at $50,000 would come up from the claiming ranks to distinguish himself as a multi-millionaire, amassing more than $5 million in earnings, winning unprecedented combinations of races with power, determination and inspiring grit. He would establish himself as an incredible race horse and inspire a following of fans and supporters like no other. The day I was introduced, Lava Man tried to bite me. Thank God, I wasn’t discouraged.
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 Santa Anita racetrack’s 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 Tiago’s brilliant three year-old body as he overtook King of the Roxy to win the Santa Anita Derby. We were so close to the action it felt as if we could reach right out and touch the horses as they flew by us. The excitement was tangible. I was hooked.
I remember betting that day, and knowing so little about it. Upon advice received from a total stranger, I asked the pari-mutuel clerk to “Please put my horses in a box.” I chose my two horses from the jockeys’ jerseys printed on the back of the free t-shirt we were given that day on entering the park. These magnificent animals transformed my $10 wager into almost $1,000 in just over a minute; a better result than any real estate deal, stock trade or financial investment I’d ever seen.
Who were these magnificent creatures? How did they get here? Where were they headed? What was this fantastic game all about?
It took me a while to find answers to my questions but I quickly learned about the very precious early life of an emerging thoroughbred champion. The journey 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 with the sport.
The two-year-old race horse strives and as it matures into the still young three-year old, all sights focused and pointed to the Triple Crown series of thoroughbred racing. Considered the pinnacle of the sport, the Triple Crown is so difficult to achieve that in 150 years of racing only 11 horses have emerged victorious, and none since Affirmed in 1978.
This year, the Santa Anita Derby was won by the O’Neill-trained, lightly raced chestnut colt, I’ll Have Another, by Flower Alley out of Arch’s Gal Edith. Instead of watching the race from the infield, I hung out next to the chute the horses pass through to enter the track for the race. It was there that I photographed Lava Man, a now retired Champion of the Sport of Kings, as he anticipated the arrival of his first protégé as an escort pony for O’Neill’s barn. Lava Man waited with the excitement and enthusiasm of a hopeful parent getting ready to usher their talented child before any meaningful life-changing event. It was entertaining and touching to see. As I watched, Lava Man continuously nodded his head up and down as if to telegraph in advance the knowledge that his prized student would win that day. And he did.
Then, it was on to the Kentucky Derby; the race every trainer or rider targets as a goal to win the moment they obtain a license in the sport. Strong, confident and lightly raced, I’ll Have Another ran a brilliant race, guided by his 25-year-old lightly-raced and confident jockey, Mario Gutierrez. The ride was one for the ages and watching it, we saw evolution in motion. The horse demonstrated his talents in uncharted territory right before our eyes.
Next came the Preakness, only two weeks later, and the name of that race game was patience, as the horse and rider sat perfectly in fourth position, in the flow, poised and strong until just the right moment when a powerful kick unleashed his formidable talent, resulting in the ultimate win.
Now we look ahead to the Belmont Stakes. Run on a much larger track, the surface is completely different and the distance is 1 ½ miles, longer than any distance the horses entered have ever run before.
Once again this magnificent chestnut colt and his rider will navigate uncharted territory on a worldwide stage. Once again we will perch ourselves wherever we can to get a glimpse of history in the making. With great enthusiasm and excitement, we will watch this horse and rider perform amidst their most formidable competitors in America, to strive for what in 34 years has been unheard of—winning the coveted Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing.
This year, thanks to technology, social media and the accessibility Doug O’Neill and the Championship three-year-old horse he trains have provided, we get to see how a really good horse progresses and how that progression is managed by a team of exciting people with a few things in common: confidence in themselves, confidence in their horse, the open-heartedness to value every joyful step of the journey, and the leadership of Lava Man, the most seasoned professional in the bunch. In the midst of potentially distractive controversy and criticism, Team O’Neill remains focused on providing the best care and knowledge available for the horse and rider, ensuring the optimal mental and physical health of all.
So, how will they emerge victorious and win the 1 ½-mile long Belmont Stakes on June 9th? How will they capture the elusive Triple Crown?
Easy! By having the best horse in the race!
Cindy Trejo is a retired banker, interested in sharing fresh and new experiences about people and horse racing to others who might not be aware of how much fun it is to take in a day at the racetrack. She can be found on facebook at cindy.trejo.376.