Also dreaming were Johnson's longtime assistants, Heriberto and Debbie Cedano, who "met in the shedrow" and have been married for 19 years. Heriberto, who is called Ocala, has worked for Johnson for 32 years, while Debbie has been there for 28 years.
"We want the horse to win so badly for P.G., because he deserves it," Heriberto said two days before the race. "It's been several years since we've had a real good horse. P.G. is such a great guy. He never lies to you and never breaks a promise. In 32 years, I've been with him every day, except for three months one year when he went to Florida and I couldn't go. This horse is so sharp right now. When you have the right horse in the right race, you dream. Sometimes, it comes true."
Debbie, who remained in New York, knew something was in the stars, literally. "Right before the horse left for Arlington, I saw a shooting star and told P.G.," she said the morning after the race. "He asked me, 'What does that mean?' I told him you get to make a wish. Then, the next day I saw another shooting star. I couldn't believe it. I felt something big just had to happen. I'm just so happy for P.G. He's been through a horrible two years. But he kicked everyone's butt. He out-trained them all.
"My son's birthday was yesterday and P.G.'s and Mary Kay's anniversary is today. Can you believe that? When he made that move at the three-eighths pole, oh my God, I don't know why the neighbors didn't call the police. I jumped up and started screaming and scared all my animals."
The Classic horses trickled into Arlington all through Breeders' Cup week. Evening Attire was one of the first arrivals. Trainer Pat Kelly and his brothers, former trainers Larry and Timmy, wanted this badly for their father, 83-year-old Thomas J. "T.J." Kelly, like Johnson, a Hall of Fame trainer.
"To have this horse come along when we all needed a helping hand is a miracle," T.J. said. "Even if he gets a piece of it, I'll be happy."
Medaglia d'Oro shipped in the Monday before the race. When veteran blacksmith Ray Amato showed up a few days later to shoe the colt, he couldn't believe the power he felt. "This is the strongest horse I've been around since Seattle Slew," he said. "He has awesome power in the back. I've been around a lot of horses, but when he pulls you in the back, you better just go with him or you'll be holding on to nothing. Seattle Slew could pick you right up off the floor like a rag doll, and this is the first horse that's reminded me of him."
War Emblem arrived on Wednesday and was stabled in Barn 1A, looking right out at Bobby Springer's barn, which was his first home on the racetrack. Springer came by the following morning to see the horse for the first time since a 90% interest was sold by Russell Reineman back in April. He hopped in trainer Bob Baffert's van and headed to the chute to watch the colt school at the gate. "I wish nothing but the best for him," Springer said shortly after watching War Emblem school perfectly. "I'll sure be pulling for him."
Breeders' Cup morning was overcast and raw, with a bone-chilling wind whipping in from the west. At Barn 10, Came Home had his game face on and was looking for action. After trainer Paco Gonzalez removed the colt's poultice and put him back in his stall, the son of Gone West went down and rolled vigorously back and forth several times, then reared, narrowly missing an overhead pipe.
Following two days of rain, the track on race day, Oct. 26, was listed as muddy, but eventually would change to good, then fast. All the horses looked and acted well in the paddock. War Emblem, again, was a bit rambunctious in the gate. At the start, E Dubai broke like a bullet and sprinted clear of War Emblem, who had to be nudged by Victor Espinoza to keep up. Right then, Baffert knew he was in trouble. "What the hell is wrong with him?" he thought. "He's just not running like he usually does." Baffert could only conclude that the colt has "just soured up."
Jerry Bailey put Medaglia d'Oro right in the hunt, with Perfect Drift on his inside. Volponi broke a bit sluggishly under Jose Santos, who had ridden the colt twice this year. Santos let him settle in stride, then moved him into striking range, about three lengths off the lead, while enjoying a clear trip along the rail. Down the backstretch, after a quarter in :23.07 and a half in :46.63, E Dubai was still winging on the front end, with War Emblem a length and a half behind. Medaglia d'Oro was ready to pounce, with Perfect Drift inching closer on his inside.
They hit the three-quarters in 1:10.20, as War Emblem began closing in on E Dubai. But Medaglia d'Oro was on the move right behind, and it became apparent that the Kentucky Derby winner was in trouble. Santos pushed the button on Volponi, and he moved out, cruising past Perfect Drift. Medaglia d'Oro, meanwhile, had taken over the lead passing the five-sixteenths pole, and looked as if he was on his way to victory. But Bailey could feel him slipping and sliding over the wet-fast track. "I was hoping it would be either sloppy or dry, but it was in between," he said.
Volponi was now in full gear and ready to strike. He charged between a tiring E Dubai and War Emblem, shoving E Dubai out of the way. Then, with an electrifying move inside Medaglia d'Oro, he blew by the favorite in a flash. "I could have waited and gone to the outside," Santos said. "But the hole was there, I fit there, so we went."
And went he did, quickly opening up by 2 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole, then increasing his margin with every stride. Santos, after several right-hand whips, put the stick away and hand-rode him to the wire, covering the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.39. Medaglia d'Oro just held on for second by a neck over stablemate Milwaukee Brew. It was three lengths back to Evening Attire in fourth. War Emblem faded to eighth, with Came Home a distant 10th.
Gonzalez said the following morning the colt had apparently suffered a knee injury. Hawk Wing, from Aidan O'Brien's powerful Ballydoyle stable in Ireland, never was in the hunt, finishing seventh.
Volponi's stunning victory also helped revive the career of Santos. Once one of the most sought-after riders in the country, Santos' career took a dramatic nosedive in the mid-'90s after a bad spill. "My business went down terribly," he said. "Then, this year I started to get up, and believe me, it's like I'm rejuvenated. It's been a blessing, and my family has kept me going."
For the Johnsons, this also has been a blessing, to have this homebred colt come along when they desperately needed him. Mary Kay, still overcome with emotion well after the race, couldn't help but think back to the 19-year-old girl who was at old Washington Park with her parents when a young, struggling trainer, all of 18 years old, sat down on a bench next to her and struck up a conversation. Continued...