Horse racing | 140th Kentucky Derby

Trainers take many roads to the Kentucky Derby

 

Todd Pletcher has the credentials and résumé, but little-known Jose Garoffalo can strike lightning in the Kentucky Derby with Wildcat Red.

Special to the Miami Herald

Jose Garoffalo and Todd Pletcher share a profession. They train thoroughbreds.

They even share Barn 2 on Gulfstream Park’s backside during the winter when Pletcher transports stars in his stable the 45 miles south from his Palm Meadows base to the races.

That’s where similarities end, however, with the exception of a highly significant asterisk come Saturday.

Pletcher, the trainer against whom all others are measured, operates spectacularly on a national scale. Garoffalo rarely ventures away from Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course.

Pletcher trains the best horses breeders can breed and money can buy. Garoffalo scratches out a living working with horses indelicately described as “cheap claimers,” those that routinely pass from hand to hand and race in events that carry purses often in the neighborhood of $10,000 to $12,000.

Consider: Pletcher-schooled horses earned $25,246,544 in 2013, almost $10 million more than those of Bob Baffert, next best on the trainers’ money list.

Garoffalo’s trainees earned $576,279, according to Equibase figures. Pletcher had more victories last year, 224, than Garoffalo had starters, 177.

Here’s that asterisk: When the gates spring open for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday, Garoffalo’s colt Wildcat Red will be the same 1 1/4 miles from Run for the Roses immortality as Pletcher’s three or four entrants.

“I feel like the rookie in the major leagues,” Garoffalo quipped with an engaging laugh last week before he shipped Fountain of Youth winner and Florida Derby runner-up Wildcat Red to Louisville, Ky.

Pletcher, a six-time winner of the Eclipse Award presented annually to the sport’s leading trainer, will add as many as four to his list of 36 previous Kentucky Derby starters. Garoffalo, in uncharted and near mystical territory, will be saddling his first.

The 50-year-old Venezuelan, who has trained in South Florida since 1999, recognizes the odds he’s confronting. But he also has been soaking up data that suggests he could be on the precipice of thoroughbred racing fame.

Should Wildcat Red exceed his breeding and expectations to win, Garoffalo will suddenly have the same number of Kentucky Derby victories on his résumé as Pletcher: One.

Astonishingly, after D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito and Baffert ruled the 1990s and early years of this century by combining for eight of 12 Kentucky Derby triumphs, 1999 launched a span of 15 Derbies with 15 different winning trainers.

“I’ll be No. 16, hopefully,” Garoffalo said gleefully.

His luck will have to match the good fortune that allowed him to purchase his prized colt for owners Salvatore Delfino and Josie Martino (Honors Stable Corp.) last year at an Ocala sale of 2-year-olds in training.

Garoffalo, as always, was on a strict budget. He had $30,000 to bid, not a penny more. His final bid was $30,000. And it was the winning bid.

Suddenly, he had a colt — a son of graded-stakes-winning sprinter D’wildcat — that quickly began to flash a talent that could alter Garoffalo’s place in the game.

“I’ve had some good stakes horses,” Garoffalo said, “but never like this.”

Nothing in thoroughbred racing is certain or permanent. But Garoffalo knows he could conceivably have “that one horse that can put you at a different level” in the profession.

“The horse caught my attention the first time I saw him [at the 2013 Ocala sale],” Garoffalo said. “And I was convinced he was good from the time he won his first race,” a maiden sprint at Gulfstream last Sept. 13. “But you never know how far the horse can take you.”

“How far” represents not only a horse’s peak of achievement but the distance over which he can sustain excellence. D’wildcat, after all, excelled at shorter distances, and no one’s going to concede that Wildcat Red can handle 1 1/4 miles or more until he actually masters it.

But the colt combined sprinter’s speed and enduring grit when he set the pace in the $1 million Florida Derby and then dueled Pletcher’s Constitution to the mile-and-one-eighth wire before yielding by a neck.

Constitution has since sustained a shin injury that took him off the Kentucky Derby trail and out of Saturday’s probable 20-horse field headed by Santa Anita Derby winner California Chrome.

Wildcat Red finished first in all three of his starts as a 2-year-old, though he was disqualified to second for interference in one. He then engaged another Kentucky Derby probable, General a Rod, and “got beat by nothing … a nose, a head,” in the Gulfstream Park Derby on Jan. 1.

That absolutely affirmed for Garoffalo that he had a shot at the game’s ultimate glory.

Thanks to Wildcat Red, Garoffalo’s horses this year already have exceeded his 2013 earnings as a trainer. But he hasn’t lost touch with the reality of his vocation.

“This is a business where you’re struggling all the time, every day,” he said. “You have to fight. You have to work, every day. At the same time, you have a lot of satisfaction. I love what I do, even on the bad days.”

He’s at that level where priority No. 1 is keeping his horses sound. If they’re not sound, they cannot run.

“If you can run, you can make money,” he said, “even with the cheap horses. You can survive in the business.”

Garoffalo sampled the glitz and glamour of a Kentucky Derby weekend two years ago when Yara, winner of Gulfstream’s Grade 2 Davona Dale stakes, struggled home 12th of 13 entrants in the Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies.

Now Garoffalo is eager to be a part of the main event, the world’s most famous horse race.

Should Wildcat Red deliver, Garoffalo’s stock could skyrocket.

But even if Garoffalo’s chance of a lifetime ends in disappointment, that disappointment won’t have a long shelf life.

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