"The horses are for the dreamers, for the romantics," said Alberto Ibáñez, sitting at Clocker's Corner on the Sunday morning before the Breeders' Cup World Championships. "With horses, you win races, not money. You celebrate, you get together with friends. In all of life it's the same, having just one horse or having 20."
In 1983, Argentine native Ibáñez accompanied a friend on a trip to Santa Anita Park. At that moment he didn't own a single racehorse, but he thought of how wonderful it would be to someday see his silks come flying down the California stretch. Now the dream is a reality.
On Nov. 1, Ibáñez will send out Breeders' Cup Challenge winner Ever Rider, a 5-year-old son of the Candy Ride stallion Rider Stripes, in the $500,000 Breeders' Cup Marathon (gr. II). The colt qualified for the 1 3/4-mile event with a victory in the June 21 General Belgrano (Arg-II), a race that was won by another Argentinean, Calidoscopio, last year en route to a Marathon victory.
The Marathon is the ony grade II event on the Breeders' Cup schedule, with all the other races bearing grade I status. For Ibáñez, who has owned racehorses for 25 years and now keeps about 15 in addition to others owned in partnership, the adventure has been surreal since his runner qualified in his first stakes victory at odds of 28-1.
"Immediately after I won the Belgrano, a reporter asked me if I was going to the Breeders' Cup," the owner remarked. "I said, 'I'm going to go wherever the horse takes me, all the way to the moon.'
"For three months, I've been thinking about the Breeders' Cup every day, running the race through in my head. I've dreamt many things in my life of all colors, but this I never dreamed."
Like Calidoscopio, Ever Rider is stabled in the barn of California trainer Mike Puype, who assisted with the training of last year's Marathon runner and eventually even took over training Calidoscopio once the Breeders' Cup was done, saddling him to a powerful victory in the Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II) this June. But unlike last year's Marathon winner, Ever Rider arrived in the U.S. with his own trainer—Maria Munoz, who saddled him to seven of his 23 career starts, including his first five outings.
Munoz is a third generation horsewoman whose grandfather and father were both trainers in Argentina; she has been training since 1996 and has a string of 20 runners in her native land.
Munoz had Ever Rider long before his first start, introducing him to the ways of the track. She said she recognized his ability early on, even though he didn't always win, and she always knew he'd like to go long.
For the Breeders' Cup journey, she accompanied the gray runner first to Miami, where he spent seven days in quarantine, then to Del Mar, then on to Santa Anita. They arrived in the U.S. in early August.
"For us, it was very important to come way ahead of time so the horse could acclimate to the new conditions," she said.
And how did Ever Rider handle the switch? More importantly, how does he like Santa Anita?
"He did everything very easy," Munoz said. "He likes it here, and so do I."
Munoz said she recognizes the exciting potential of a Breeders' Cup victory. Last year was the first time an Argentinean horse won for his immediate connections rather than as an import for North American owners. This year, Munoz could be the first Argentinean female trainer to get a Breeders' Cup victory. She would join just two other women to have accomplished the feat—Jenine Sahadi and Laura de Seroux.
Along with Munoz, another woman has played a pivotal role in Ever Rider's preparations for the Breeders' Cup. Lotta Beach, who works for Puype, started riding the runner when he arrived at Del Mar. Like most South American Thoroughbreds, the horse trains only in a bareback pad—no saddle, which means no stirrups. She'd never ridden a racehorse that way before, but that didn't stop her from learning how to do it.
"The boss came to me and said, 'Lotta, your horse is here, but she wants you to ride him bareback, at least for the first week or so,'" Beach recalled. "I said, 'Let's try it, see how it comes along. He's got a very nice round back, which helps; he is very professional out on the track, and he's got a quite smooth way of going. After the first day I galloped him bareback, I said 'Maria, if you want to do things the way he's used to and keep him bareback, that's fine by me'."
Beach rode showjumpers before she started working with racehorses professionally in 1997. She came to the U.S. in 1998 to work for Michael Dickinson, and has been with Puype for about two years.
"This whole thing has been a learning process for me but it's fun," she said of working with Ever Rider. "It's been a challenge; it's something new."
Beach, who speaks little Spanish, even devised a dry erase board system in order to communicate with Munoz, who speaks little English.
"She can tell me exactly where to jog and gallop, she has all the poles worked out, and it's been great because I know just what she wants," Beach said. "When she saw it, you should have seen her face; I think it was a relief for her, too, because it was like, 'Alright, now I can actually show her what I really want to be done'."
Beach said getting on Ever Rider Argentinean-style was a good test of her skills.
"Every time I ride him, I am very focused just to keep my weight centered, especially with the lead changes because there's always a little bit of a twitch in that," she said. "He neck reins, which Calidoscopio did as well. The main focus for me is to stay centered, keep even reins and even pressure, and totally have him framed in. The first time we kind of picked up the pace, going at an open gallop, it was kind of hard to figure out what to do—do I lean forward, do I short up the reins? He went alright, but the second time I did it, it was so much fun. Now we know what we're doing and he just floats into his lead switches, and he really responds to my body language. I can shorten up the reins and push him on the last bit. It's awesome."
Ever Rider is one in a field of 10 for the Marathon. He will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who is bullish on his chances. However, the key to his victory will be whether he obtains and can carry on a frontrunning victory—all of his victories have come wire-to-wire.
"Our entire team has a lot of faith in the horse, but we just have to wait until raceday, and until then we just keep dreaming," Munoz said.