It only took a little more than 24 seconds for trainer Carlos Morales to see his life flash before his eyes. To be exact, :24.60. That's how long it took for Yankee Victor to run the final quarter of a mile in the $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), while drawing off to an emphatic 4 3/4-length victory.
As the 4-year-old son of Saint Ballado charged down the Belmont Park stretch, Morales was pounded with one emotion after another. There was the joy of seeing the colt he fell in love with at the 1998 Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's March sale of 2-year-olds in training finally gain national recognition. There was the satisfaction of seeing so many jubilant owners, who had put their faith in the young Venezuelan. There were thoughts of his wife, Gabriella, who was only a day or two away from giving birth to their first child. And finally, there was the presence of his father, Luis, who had died nine days earlier in Caracas at the age of 74. For Morales, it was one life ending, one life about to begin, and his own life reaching new heights.
Morales was all prepared to return to Venezuela to visit his dying father, who had remained his inspiration, even though they had been apart for the past five years. Moreton Binn, who owns 25% of Yankee Victor, stood in the winner's circle and marveled at his trainer. "You have to give Carlos so much credit," he said. "He was ready to go back to Venezuela, but his father told him, 'Don't come. My life is spoken for. You stay there and do what you have to.' "
"He told me to stay here and keep working hard," Morales said. "It's hard for me to talk about it, because I begin to cry too easily."
There was one time, however, that Morales didn't heed his father's advice, even though his father had been in racing all his life, as an owner, trainer, breeder, and racetrack director. Although the younger Morales had 150 horses in training in Venezuela and had been the leading trainer for four consecutive years, he decided to give it all up in 1995 and try to make it in the United States.
"When I told my father I wanted to come to the United States," Morales recalled, "he told me, 'Carlos, you're the champion. You're winning everything. Over there, you're just going to be a number. To give all that up just to be a number is a big risk.' He was just thinking of me and only wanted the best for me. But I told him, 'You know me, I like taking risks.' "
As Morales accepted the trophy for the Metropolitan, one of America's oldest and most prestigious races, he could only hope his father was aware his risk had paid off. He no longer was just a number. In the Trustees Room following the race, one of Yankee Victor's owners, Omar Trevino, toasted his trainer. "To Carlos Morales. Great training job, my man." Another toast went, "Here's to Carlos' dad, who wished us all well on this one, and Carlos' new baby, who is due in a day or two."
Then came a final toast: "To Carlos, your father and Jesus (Colmenares) are looking down on all this right now." Colmenares was Morales' mentor who helped him in Venezuela and "coached" him when he came to America, teaching him how to read condition books and about the claiming game and conducting business. Colmenares died earlier this year.
Morales' success story in America began two years ago when he picked out a 2-year-old colt by Saint Ballado at the Ocala sale. "He wasn't a great-looking horse," Morales said, "but I loved Saint Ballado, and this colt had big, strong shoulders and a look of class about him." He bought him for $75,000 for one of his main clients from Venezuela, Enrique Llorente, who flew in for the Met. The two had teamed up in the past, racing the 1995 Venezuelan Horse of the Year Templado. When Morales came to the U.S., Templado was sent to him and won the 1997 Deputy Minister Handicap at Gulfstream.
After Yankee Victor broke his maiden at Saratoga going seven furlongs, he caught the eye of owner-breeder Moreton Binn and Frank Taylor of Taylor Made Farm. Binn contacted Llorente, who races under the name Enllomar Stable, and offered to buy the horse. The deal was all but done, but Yankee Victor failed the vet's test.
"They said he didn't look right," Binn said. "They told me he was stiff behind, so I backed out. Then he won an allowance at Gulfstream, and I said to myself, 'Somebody's not reading this thing right.' I called Enrique and told him I'd buy him, but he said it would cost me another $100,000. I said I'd think about it, and while I was thinking about it, he went and won the Rushaway Stakes. So I'm thinking, 'Now what's it going to cost me?' I told Enrique I'd go partners with him, 50-50, and he agreed. I knew Frank loved the horse and we wound up splitting the half-interest."
The ownership of Yankee Victor eventually wound up as follows: Llorente, 50%; Binn, who was named general manager, "calling all the shots," 25%; Taylor Made Farm, Sam and Joe Pollock, and the Tobias Brothers, 12.5%; and Omar Trevino, who had also expressed interest in buying the horse, and Richard Nip, 12.5%.
In his first race for his new owners, Yankee Victor finished second in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II) to Charismatic, who would use that race as a springboard to victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). But for Yankee Victor, things went downhill, as he won just one race, an overnight handicap, in his next seven starts. "When things weren't going well, I felt terrible," Morales said.
A decision was then made to remove an undescended testicle that seemed to be bothering the colt. After the operation, Yankee Victor won four of his next five starts, including consecutive runaway victories in the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct, defeating Golden Missile; a mile allowance race at Aqueduct in 1:33.45; and the Met Mile, defeating the likes of Honest Lady, Sir Bear, Big Jag, and Richter Scale.
Straight Man set the early pace in the Met, and was allowed to get away with an opening quarter in :23.06. Heberto Castillo Jr. settled Yankee Victor in second from the eight post, followed by Richter Scale and Big Jag. Yankee Victor took over on the far turn, and turned what was considered one of the most wide-open races of the year into a rout. He poured it on in the stretch, drawing off to win comfortably in 1:34.64. Honest Lady closed from last to finish second, three-quarters of a length ahead of last year's Met Mile winner Sir Bear.
"I really wasn't that surprised he won that easily," Castillo said. "His last performance really astonished me. He ran a mile in 1:33 2/5 with me pulling him up the last sixteenth of a mile. If I had let him run he might have broken the track record."
After the race, as Morales left the track, he held up a book on racing in Venezuela he had received in the mail earlier that day. The author was Luis Morales and the book was dedicated to his son. "I still cry when I think of him," Morales said, "so I haven't read the dedication yet."
All evening, Morales' cell phone rang constantly, as he spoke to friends and well-wishers. It had rung after the Westchester Handicap as well, but things were different this time.
"After Yankee Victor won the Westchester, my father called me to congratulate me," Morales said. "He said he was so happy for me. That's the call that was missing today."