The family atmosphere around Barn 42 in the mornings leading up to Saturday's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) could only be brought together by fate—in this case, Dance With Fate, the Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I) winner who has made his second trip to Kentucky from California in the past month.
Along for the ride are three ownership entities and a first-time Derby trainer. They might have been reluctant at first to tackle the May 3 Derby three weeks after the Blue Grass, but they are settling in just fine in their new Kentucky home.
Given that the majority of his success has come over turf and synthetic tracks, trainer Peter Eurton was reluctant to commit to the Derby in the minutes following the Blue Grass. He stated after that race that his preference would not be to run back three weeks later, citing the quick turnaround and his belief that Dance With Fate finishes his races better on the two surfaces that are not dirt.
Dance With Fate, runner-up in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) before his Blue Grass score, performed well on dirt last year with a second-place finish in the FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park after running second in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) on synthetic. But he has also turned in his less-spectacular run on dirt, an eighth after being pinched at the break of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
Still, the Derby packs a powerful potion, and certainties often become cloudy when connections consider the dream that is the big race on the first Saturday of May. So here is the 'other' Californian, flying far under the radar that has at its center Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner California Chrome.
"We let the horse tell us how he was doing," said co-owner Joe Ciaglia. "He kept a great appetite, was eager, and bounced back out of the Blue Grass. He needed to do more, so we're here."
Ciaglia spent his younger years as a night worker at the Ralph's supermarket in Arcadia near Santa Anita Park and his days at the racetrack. Through family and friends he met Eurton, who introduced him to another racetracker, actor Frank Alesia. They began to partner in horses.
Dawn Mellen grew up in Connecticut, where her parents started a string of tire stores named Town Fair Tires that has 75 locations around New England. Her folks also had some Stadardbreds and Dawn remembers sitting in a sulky around the time she was in first grade. Her parents eventually bought a second home in California and her father and Alesia became friends and got the itch to buy horses together.
"The first one was It's all Ice, and he won on opening day at Del Mar (in 1997)," Mellen said. "From that point on it was no turning back." The Mellen family races as Bran Jam Stable.
Frank Alesia appeared in several of the Frankie Avalon beach party movies of the '60s and also acted in numerous TV shows such as "The Odd Couple," Laverne & Shirley," and "Gomer Pyle." After his death in 2011, the remaining partners named a filly Weemissfrankie in his honor, and she went on to become a multiple grade I stakes winner, taking the Del Mar Debutante and the Oak Leaf Stakes in 2011. Frank Alesia's widow, Sharon, is one of the Dance With Fate owners.
Ciaglia, who has graduated from Ralph's and for the last decade has built skateboarding parks around the world for events such as the X Games, also hit it off with Alesia. He entered horse ownership 14 years ago, buying mostly fillies because of the return they can provide as broodmare prospects.
"We never thought much about getting to the Derby," Ciaglia noted. "But this is one of the colts that's made it through, and it's nice to have one that can get us here."
Added Mellen, "It's a thrill to be here and be a part of it. Only 20 horses, and we've got one of them."
Mellen was then off to do some Derby hat shopping, although Ciaglia, pointing to the wool ski cap on his head, noted he's already got his. Mellen is also active in After The Finish Line, a California-based non-profit that raises and distributes funds to horse rescue organizations throughout the U.S. that save, rehabilitate, and retrain retired Thoroughbreds for second careers.
Already rife with plot twists, this California tale is in need of a happy ending May 3. But if getting there is half the fun, the Dance With Fate camp has already won.