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    By Bill Doolittle
    Photo by Adam Mescan

    On a pretty morning in California, Jerry Moss, the prominent racehorse owner and co-founder of A&M Records, drives across L.A. to visit with his stars. Not the famous singers with whom he is most often associated but the fleet-footed, four-legged variety that are stabled with trainer John Shirreffs at Santa Anita Park.

    “I love to go to the barn in the morning,” says Moss, as he looks in on the horses. “It’s such a relaxing thing to see these beautiful animals — to try to get a little closer to them. When it’s sunny out and you can see the gleam in their coats, it’s quite a feeling.”

    As the morning work winds down — the horses have been to the track for exercise and then cooled down, bathed and brushed — Moss asks his trainer to bring two particular horses out into the stable yard to pose for a picture. Moss wants Shirreffs to hold both steeds, and he’s got a shady spot picked out near the barn to capture the image. Of course, none of this is unusual. Happens every day at every track in America: a smitten horse owner wanting a photo of his precious babies, posed with the wise trainer. Except these aren’t just any two horses. They’re both three-year-old colts aiming to run in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. And you’ll excuse Moss for being excited with not one but TWO possible Derby horses.

    And, yes, it’s only early March, still nine weeks to the first Saturday in May, but Moss is living a Derby dream, following a horse — or two — along the trail of important prep races that will qualify a field of 20 for the Derby. It’s the run-up to the Run for the Roses, and it is something almost as special as the race itself.

    And before you ask, the answer is: Yes. Moss knows not to get his hopes up too high. He knows so much can go right one day, then so wrong the next. In fact, just a couple days later, one of his two Derby candidates, Gormley, will run a distant fourth in the San Felipe Stakes, an important prep race. Things can unravel quickly. The winner of that race, Mastery, trained by four-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, won striding away, looking every bit the horse to beat in the Kentucky Derby. But Mastery pulled up seconds later with a leg injury that knocked it out of the Derby picture. But Moss knows it can all come true, too. He’s won the Kentucky Derby. He and his wife Ann got the blanket of roses in 2005 when Giacomo came home first at 50-1.

    That’s the nature of springtime in the horse-racing game, when hope most certainly springs eternal. When April showers bring May flowers, and horses just turning three years old suddenly may make great physical — and mental — advances. And should a precocious young Thoroughbred throw in a clunker, it also might bounce back to win its next race to keep the dream alive. Moss’ horse Gormley, though starched in March, will run again in April in the Santa Anita Derby. And Moss’ other horse, Royal Mo, is headed to Oaklawn Park, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to try the Arkansas Derby path to Louisville — a route most recently perfected by American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner. 

     

    Meanwhile, all the way across the country in Miami, they’re dreaming Derby dreams at the barn of trainer Antonio Sano. There’s a handsome chestnut horse there named Gunnevera that’s putting a spring in the trainer’s step.

    Sano has 60-some horses under his care, but as he walks the shedrow of his barn at Gulfstream Park West (the former Calder Racecourse), he pauses for a second to pat Gunnevera on his forehead. “My Derby horse,” Sano says.

    “He’s been saying that since the day he picked the horse out for the owners,” says the trainer’s son, 19-year-old Alex Sano. “Even when he ran second in his first race, then fourth, he was calling Gunnevera his Derby horse. We said, ‘Dad, couldn’t you at least let him win a race first before you go calling him your Derby horse?’ But that didn’t stop him.”

    Then Gunnevera did win a race, and soon Sano was sending Gunnevera north in August to face the blue-blooded two-year-olds at Saratoga, where all the best horses, and their best people, go to summer. Gunnevera entered the Saratoga Special and came out of the gate fifth in a field of five — and last by a country mile. He was so far back that in the pan shot on the split-screen TV he wasn’t even in the picture. Everyone in the Gunnevera camp was there — the three partners in Peacock Racing Stables and all of Antonio Sano’s family. All were stunned.

    “We were wondering, what’s happening? He’s so far behind,” Alex Sano says. A little concerned for the horse. And maybe a little concerned, as well, for Dad’s reputation. Maybe the horse didn’t belong at fabled Saratoga.

    But then jockey Javier Castellano let out a notch on the reins and Gunnevera took off like a rocket. The horse caught up with the field and rolled right on past, drawing away at the end.

    An easy winner. And, maybe, a horse with a chance to be a Derby horse.

     

    There are really two parts to becoming a Derby horse.

    The first: simply qualifying to get into the race. The Kentucky Derby is so popular with horse owners that, since 2013, Churchill Downs has used a points system, tied to the most prominent prep races, to determine the race’s 20-horse field (and hopefully to draw more eyes to those prep races). The points increase as the prep race season climaxes coming into April, with the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes. There is a big points race in Dubai for European and Middle Eastern horses. And for the first time this year, a starting spot is reserved for the leading three-year-old in Japan, a winner of the Hyacinth Stakes named Epicharis. (In the past, earnings determined the Derby field.)

    This year, 413 horses were early nominees for the Triple Crown races (Derby, Preakness and Belmont). Some of those are vanity entries, to be sure, but there are plenty of well-considered horses on the list. The points system is pretty straightforward, if not very romantic. It’s meant to cap the Derby field at 20 in a fair way. 

    The biggest stables with the most Derby contenders ship horses here and there in search of points. Most of the premiere preps are run about the same time, so a trainer may dispatch one to Kentucky, another to New York, etc., to try to grab several starting-gate spots for the Derby. The current leading proponent of that is trainer Todd Pletcher, who has started as many as five horses in the Kentucky Derby. But it is nothing novel. D. Wayne Lukas had five in 1996, the year he won with Grindstone. The Jones boys of Calumet Farm, Plain Ben and son Jimmy, kept Citation and Coaltown separated until Derby Day 1948, then finished first and second with them. Further back, horse owner Colonel E.R. Bradley ran one-two in the 1921 Derby, and Harry Payne Whitney ran three-four in a 12-horse field. Didn’t leave much for the other fellas.

    But the second half of the equation — the hard part — is coming up with a horse good enough to run in the world’s most famous race. And fine-tuning it to peak for the Kentucky Derby. That’s the Race to the Greatest Race.

    People have spent lifetimes in the quest. Wealthy owners have blown millions developing showplace horse farms stocked with expensive broodmares. And plenty of oil moguls and dot-com billionaires have gone wild bidding for untried yearlings at the sales. They’ve hired trainers, switched trainers, changed jockeys, consulted psychics. But mostly all they can do is keep their fingers crossed.

    No one has the magic formula. About 30,000 Thoroughbreds are foaled each year in North America, with many thousands more registered overseas. All of those are eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby at the age of three. But only one will win.

    Certainly one might improve the chances by buying the best-bred, best-looking, fastest-training young horses. Or spend a lifetime dabbling in the alchemy of selective breeding. But nobody really knows exactly how to do it.

    The late Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens captured the Derby’s gold ring twice in his life. But he could never explain exactly how it happened.

    “Where does a Derby horse come from?” Stephens would ask, rhetorically. “Nobody knows. One morning you go to the barn, and there he is.”

     

    By the time Woody Stephens won the 100th Kentucky Derby with Cannonade in 1974, and the 1984 Derby with Swale, he was already famous — a fellow who began with nothing but made himself into something. Stephens fit right in with the characters of the turf, and with the captains of industry and socialites of Park Avenue, for whom he trained racehorses. He possessed an innate sense of how to be himself in any company, and his horses could win any race.

    In his autobiography, Guess I’m Lucky, Stephens recounted many springs searching for the horse in his barn that could win the Kentucky Derby. This writer remembers him holding forth at the upstairs bar at Hialeah Park, in Miami, and on the backside at Churchill Downs Derby Week.

    For Stephens, the Derby quest (he also won five straight Belmonts, of course) would begin the summer before, in August at Saratoga, where he would unveil his fastest coming stars. That’s the same Saratoga meet where, decades later, Antonio Sano would run Gunnevera — to test against the best.

    Anyhow, it was 1983 and Stephens turned up with the best two-year-old in the country, Devil’s Bag. Writers and fans were already looking ahead to the Kentucky Derby the next spring. Stephens would acknowledge he thought a lot of Devil’s Bag, then rhapsodize into theory. “A good two-year-old is about as dependable a horse as you can wish for — bursting with energy, eager to do his best, not trying to save his legs like an older horse,” Stephens said. “If he’s trained right, he shouldn’t be balky or spoiled.”

    Devil’s Bag sparkled at two and was favored for the 1984 Kentucky Derby. But when the Derby prep season commenced in Florida, Stephens felt something just wasn’t right with the Devil. Or with himself. Every morning he would study Devil’s Bag and wonder what was wrong. The horse was winning but didn’t have that same sparkle as the summer before. And neither did Stephens.

    In April, Stephens shipped his top three-year-old colts and fillies to Kentucky for the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. In Lexington, Stephens’ cousin, Dr. David Richardson, took one look at Stephens and slapped him in a hospital to be treated for pneumonia, complicated by chronic emphysema. With his wife Lucille at his side, Stephens made progress, and Richardson finally sprang him for one day to see the Kentucky Derby. The trainer had Derby fever — and a fever of his own.

    But it was without Devil’s Bag. The horse was going lame in a front foot, but nobody could figure out why. Louisville veterinarian Gary Lavin found a tiny fracture in the other front foot, which Stephens surmised was causing the horse to put abnormal weight on the opposite foot. Devil’s Bag was out of the Derby. 

    But things happen in horse racing. Sometimes good. Another Stephens colt named Swale was suddenly blooming in the warm days and cool nights of the Bluegrass. Stephens reached out to the West Coast for jockey Laffit Pincay. Pincay rode boldly, and Swale won the Derby. Stephens went back to bed, pleased.

     

    It’s not much different, one imagines, for Jerry Moss and Antonio Sano. Just like Stephens years ago, they’ve got the horse bug, and the Derby fever that goes with it.

    “It’s a bit of a long story how I got into racing, but not that long,” says Moss, who was strictly in the music business when he moved from New York to California and founded A&M Records with trumpeter Herb Alpert. In California, they worked with a guy named Nate Duroff, who had a pressing plant for records. “One time, a friend of Nate’s had retired and become a horse trainer at Santa Anita, and Nate called one day and said, ‘I want you and Herbie to invest with me in a horse,’” Moss says. “I said, ‘I can’t do that — I’m busy and working and got so many people to see.’ He said, ‘When you’re free, let me know.’”

    Time went by and, eventually, Duroff suffered a stroke. Moss went to see him in the hospital.

    “I just felt terrible for him, and you know how you say, ‘Well, Nate, listen, if there’s anything I can do for you, just let me know’? He said, ‘Yeah, when I get out of the hospital you can claim a horse with me.’”

    Moss laughs, remembering his friend.

    Moss enlisted the help of songwriter Burt Bacharach, who hooked him up with prominent trainer Bobby Frankel. (Incidentally, Bacharach started two horses himself in the Kentucky Derby: Soul of the Matter, fifth in 1994, and Afternoon Deelites, eighth in ’95.) The new partners had no special luck with their claim, but the racing game fascinated Moss. With Frankel, Moss raced the top sprinter, Fighting Fit, in the mid-’80s. With trainer Brian Mayberry, he won the 1994 Kentucky Oaks with Sardula.

    Eventually, Moss and his wife Ann hooked up with Shirreffs, a gifted trainer noted for his patience with young horses, and Shirreffs’ wife Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, who is active in the stable’s success. Dottie’s son, Kentucky bloodstock agent David Ingordo, found a filly for Moss named Zenyatta, who became one of the most popular stars of the American turf. (Zenyatta is named for the Police album Zenyatta Mondatta on the A&M label. And Giacomo, incidentally, is named for Sting’s son.) Shirreffs didn’t start Zenyatta until late in her three-year-old season, but the tall, dark filly stormed to 19 victories in 20 starts, with earnings of more than $7 million. The Moss-Shirreffs connection has produced several other stars as well.

    And now Gormley and Royal Mo. One would be tempted to think the thrill of another Kentucky Derby might be diminished. But don’t bet on it. Racing likes to think of itself as greatness defined over time. Or, maybe for Moss, it’s most about staying close to the gleaming coats.

     

    There hasn’t yet been a horse like Zenyatta in Antonio Sano’s barn. Or a previous Kentucky Derby prospect. But don’t think for a second that Sano is a silly dreamer, unwise to the realities of racing. He’s a winning trainer who currently ranks 23rd in earnings on a list of more than 3,000 horse trainers in the United States and Canada. In his native Venezuela, Sano ranked at the top of the game, winning hundreds of races.

    Venezuela is a county that loves its horse racing, and Sano was a star. But maybe too much of one. The worldwide oil boom that had fueled the Venezuelan economy eventually went bust in that country. Venezuela’s politics fell apart and the country became dangerous. Sano was kidnapped twice. The first time he was held for four hours until his wife paid a ransom. The second time, Sano was held for more than a month until a bigger ransom could be paid.

    Sano had to leave his country. The family first went to Italy, then to the United States, where Sano believed the racing opportunities would be best. The trainer could not bring along his horses, but he believed he still had his training touch. Old clients from Venezuela and Spain knew what Sano could do and bought horses to stock his stable. Most had only moderate talent. Interestingly, in a speed-conscious sport, Sano trained many of his horses to run from off the pace.

    Like Gunnevera.

    After Saratoga, Gunnevera ran fifth in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, then cashed in first in the Delta Downs Jackpot, in Louisiana. In that race, Gunnevera again looped the field from last to first. Then did it again in the Fountain of Youth, at Gulfstream Park, on March 4. That runaway victory vaulted Gunnevera to the top of the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard. It also brought Gunnevera into the Derby season chatter among fans.

    By the time readers get their hands on this story, Gunnevera will have run again in the Florida Derby, a last start before the Kentucky Derby. As noted, things change every day in horse racing. The horse might lose its “form.” Or score again. Everyone will know more then than this scribe does now about the chances of Gunnevera.

    In the meantime, writers and racing people keep dropping by the barn to see Sano’s Derby hopeful. The trainer likes to ask his son Alex to get in on the interviews, and the father and son kind of do it together.

    “My father and our family are so thrilled to have Gunnevera in our barn, and be involved in the Derby,” Alex Sano says. “We want everyone to be a part of it. It makes horse racing fun.”

     

    Also along for the ride on Gunnevera – at least for now – is jockey Javier Castellano, who is also a native of Venezuela. Castellano has won the past four Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey and is generally considered the No. 1 rider in the United States.

    But he’s never won the Kentucky Derby. A couple of top horses Castellano was riding were injured and didn’t make the race. Some couldn’t go the Derby’s 1¼- mile distance. There’s a rider’s race to the Kentucky Derby, and Castellano is very much in it – just like the Derby horse owners and trainers.

    Which brings to mind one more story. About Woody Stephens’ winner from ’84.

    This happened one day at the Cardinal Inn, the campus hangout at the University of Louisville, where talk was known to veer from poets of the 17th century to entries in the eighth race at Churchill.

    One of the brothers who owned the Cardinal Inn was Johnny George, who was friends with Tony Matos, from Matos’ days as a student at U of L. Matos had graduated from the university to become a top jockey’s agent, and his No. 1 rider was Laffit Pincay, based in California, and the leading rider in America.

    Matos was in town for Derby Week, and Johnny George asked him about the Derby. Matos dropped his voice, took a very serious tone. This writer was there, and we were all holding our breath, listening.

    “I’ll tell you, Johnny,” Matos said. “Laffit has done everything. He’s the leading rider in the country. He’s won the most money, and some day he’s going to retire having won more races than any rider. But he’s never won the Kentucky Derby. That’s the one thing he wants most – and it’s my job to get it for him.

    “This time,” Matos said, “I think I’ve got him on the right horse.” 

    That horse was Swale, and if they’d opened a betting window right then and there, everyone in the Cardinal Inn would have emptied their pockets.

    As it was, we all had to wait a week. But Swale got the job done on Derby Day — for Claiborne Farm, for Woody Stephens, for Laffit Pincay. For all of us.

    That’s right. Wealthy owners, wise trainers and clever jockeys aren’t the only ones living the dream. We’re all looking for our Derby horse.

    This originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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