All trainers want to win big races for their owners, but in Mike Pender's case, it would be especially sweet to win the Geico Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (gr. IT) for B.J. Wright with Jeranimo or Boat Trip.
Wright once coached football at Glenoaks Elementary School in Glendale, Calif. Pender was the team's quarterback, and they were undefeated that season. When the two reconnected at the racetrack after Pender grew up and became a horse trainer, Wright hired Pender. Since then, they have been winning graded stakes after graded stakes with Jeranimo and Ultimate Eagle, while Boat Trip is one of their developing stars.
"We came together at the perfect time," said Pender. "He was changing his whole program. He decided not to breed anymore and to buy horses at the sales. We've bought 15 horses together, and 14 out of the 15 have made it to the winner's circle."
Jeranimo, a six-time graded stakes winner, is a particular favorite and unusual in that he is a 7-year-old horse still competing at the top level. The son of Congaree —Jera, by Jeblar, cost $70,000 at the 2008 Barretts May 2-year-old sale. Early this year, Robert LaPenta bought a significant interest in Jeranimo.
Pender cross-entered Jeranimo and Boat Trip, whom Wright co-owns with James Hirschmann III, in the Turf Sprint and the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT). Boat Trip broke his maiden and most recently finished second, losing by just a nose, in the Eddie D. Stakes (gr. IIIT) over the Turf Sprint's distance, about 6 1/2 furlongs down Santa Anita's hillside turf course. Jeranimo has finished unplaced in the past two Breeders' Cup Miles, but this past summer won the Eddie Read Stakes (gr. IT) at Del Mar.
The owners and Pender ultimately opted for the Turf Sprint with both runners. Victor Espinoza will ride Jeranimo from post 1, and Rafael Bejarano will ride Boat Trip from post 6.
"Jeranimo is a mile and an eighth or a mile and a quarter horse," said Pender. "The Breeders' Cup doesn't offer that distance. So we've been kind of hogtied whenever we come into this event.
"In the end, we felt the dynamics of coming down the hill would be just enough of a challenge for this horse. We thought that at this point in his career, it would be the best thing to do."
Pender pointed out that anyone examining Jeranimo's early career would see that he has won sprinting. The horse broke his maiden at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita in 2009 and added an allowance race at the same distance in 2010, both on the main track when it was synthetic.
Boat Trip's second in the Eddie D. could have been a victory, Pender feels, if the colt hadn't jumped the dirt. Horses must cross the dirt track to get from the hillside portion of the turf course to the main turf oval.
"When we hit the dirt, he jumped a little and I lost ground," said jockey Garrett Gomez after he and Boat Trip ran second. "I had to give him time to get back on his feet, so I lost momentum and I think that cost me the race."
A 4-year-old son of Harlan's Holiday--Turning Wheel, by Seeking the Gold, Boat Trip sold for $100,000 at the 2011 Ocala Breeders' Sales Company March 2-year-old sale.
While Boat Trip is a relative youngster and could be in the Pender barn for a while, Jeranimo may be coming to the end of his career. The trainer and especially Jeranimo's groom, Ernesto Quintana, hope the horse can continue racing, however.
"This horse wants to keep rolling right through his 8-year-old year," said Pender. "We turned him out before at a farm, and he gets depressed. He really has a home here at this barn. His groom has been with him for five years."
Besides, Wright may enjoy heading to the winner's circle more than just about any owner in the business. He grew up in Shelbyville, Ky., and his goal has been to get a horse into a race like the Breeders' Cup.
"If I could win this race for B.J., I'd feel like a kid with a grandfather he has looked up to for many years as a mentor who has taught him so much," said Pender. "It would be pretty special."