By Steve Haskin & Esther Marr
Thanks to a horse named Wildcat Red , Venezuelan-born trainer Jose Garoffalo and owner Salvatore Delfino have ventured onto the Triple Crown trail—sacred ground upon which they have never before trodden.
If the speedy son of D'wildcat, a decisive winner of the Feb. 1 Hutcheson Stakes (gr. III), succeeds in stretching out in the Feb. 22 Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park, the duo's wildest dreams—of taking a shot at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I)—could eventually come true.
Feb. 22 can best be described as D-Day, the largest invasion of Derby contenders of the 2014 campaign. Results of the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream and a dynamite allowance race on the undercard there, along with the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, will cause a major change on the prep scene—and when these races are over, there will be far fewer Derby hopefuls than there are today, and the Derby trail will be littered with broken dreams.
"This race is crucial, the most important of his career so far," Garoffalo said. "Depending on the result, we may be going to Kentucky in the near future."
Garoffalo, 50, started out small in Venezuela, assisting in his family's breeding operation and later training a string of horses at La Rinconada racetrack in Caracas, but he always dreamed of performing on a bigger stage. He first developed his passion for the business while working at his father's farm, Haras Bucaral in Belen, but simultaneously attended both the Venezuelan Academy of Thoroughbred trainers and law school.
Founded in the early 1980s, Haras Bucaral boasted a band of around 40 broodmares, many of which Garoffalo bought on his father's behalf in the United States and then shipped back to Venezuela. The father-son team, which bred a number of stakes winners over the years, typically sold their mares' offspring as yearlings at auction in Venezuela.
Upon completing both of his degrees in conditioning racehorses and law, Garoffalo decided to take out his trainer's license instead of further pursuing a career in the legal field. It's a decision he has never regretted.
"(Training horses) is my passion...I went to law school and got a degree, but I chose to stay in the horse business because it's what I really love," he said.
In 1999, some of Garoffalo's clients urged him to try racing in the United States. He viewed it as the perfect opportunity to kick his career up a notch.
"I took the challenge, because I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it here," said Garoffalo, who saddled his first horse on North American soil at Hialeah Park in April 1999.
In the last 15 years, Garoffalo has saddled 324 winners from 2,388 starters, primarily at Hialeah, Calder Casino & Race Course, and Gulfstream. His other big horses include Amazing Speed, a five-time stakes winner at Calder in 2006-2007; and other black-type victors El Segundo Joe, Fly Me Crazy, Wild Speed, and Yara. The latter, a daughter of Put It Back, captured the 2012 Davona Dale Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream.
Garoffalo, who currently has around 20 horses in his stable, met Wildcat Red's owner, fellow Venezuelan Delfino, through a mutual friend several years ago. A wine importer/exporter, 54-year-old Delfino is a newcomer to the industry and has one other horse with Garoffalo, a winning Trippi mare named Trippi Honor. Along with Wildcat Red, she races under the name of Delfino's Honors Stable Corporation.
With a strict $30,000 budget, Garoffalo agreed to purchase another horse for Delfino at the 2013 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s June sale of 2-year-olds in training. The conditioner immediately saw Wildcat Red's potential, especially noting how easily he went in his breeze and the way he galloped out. But he wasn't sure he could afford the strapping juvenile, who was bred in Florida by Moreau Bloodstock International & Winter Racing Enterprise out of the Miner's Mark mare Racene.
"Physically, he was a very nice horse and very athletic," Garoffalo recalled. "As soon as I saw the horse, I wanted to buy him for any price, but we only had $30,000 to spend...we got lucky because we paid exactly that. If someone else had been interested in him we never would have gotten him, because we had a strict budget."
With earnings of $235,850, Wildcat Red has won three of his five career starts, although he has finished first four times—he was disqualified to second in the Gulfstream Juvenile Sprint. When stretched out to a mile in the Gulfstream Park Derby, he missed a head decision to General a Rod after an all-out stretch battle. Dropping back to seven furlongs in the Hutcheson, he crushed his opponents by 4 1/4 lengths in a sprightly 1:22 1/5, earning a 96 Beyer Speed Figure.
But now comes the big test. Wildcat Red is one of the unknown factors in the Fountain of Youth, one who could play a major role whether determining his own fate or wreaking havoc for others. His place on the Derby trail is a pure mystery, depending on two factors—how far he can carry his speed and how he'll react if anyone decides to test that speed early.
The colt's sire needed a bulldozer to get him past seven furlongs, but his broodmare sire Miner's Mark, a son of the great Personal Ensign, won the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and placed in the Travers Stakes (gr. I). With that sort of a pedigree juggling act, it's tough to determine which side will prove the dominant force in how far he wants to run. Never having raced longer than a mile, he'll get his first chance under jockey Luis Saez in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth.
"I think the horse can go the distance with no problem," Garoffalo said. "When he ran in the Gulfstream Park Derby, my goal was to go further with him. I used the Hutcheson as a race to keep him in shape, and he won it with little effort. He's been training for the distance for awhile."
Although he has proven he doesn't need to be on the lead, it's going to be difficult keeping him off the front end, especially after pressing a :44 4/5 half in the Hutcheson.
"He won that race easily with no effort," Garoffalo remarked. "I also noticed that the horse was more focused and more relaxed, and that he could run just behind the speed with no problem. And then he showed he could finish strongly if he relaxes early on. I believe the slower the pace, the longer he can go."
But can he go slow early on? That is the main question.
"I've been training the horse for longer distances since December," Garoffalo said. "When you watch him train you can see his pace is very steady throughout. So, from the bottom of my heart I feel he will handle the two turns with no problem. But they still have to run the race, and we'll see then if I'm right or wrong.
"I was looking forward to running him in the Gulfstream Park Derby and stretching him out to a mile and he handled it beautifully, getting beat by a head. He proved in that race he could handle the mile in a very good way. I continued to train him for a distance with a lot of long gallops and planned on running in the Holy Bull (gr. III) to give him a two-turn race.
"But even though we couldn't make that race, the horse already had the miles in him. So, when he went into the Hutcheson, he had enough training for long distances. For the Fountain of Youth, he's shown me he can handle the two turns very easily. His pedigree (on his sire's side) doesn't show much stamina, but I think he might be the exception to the rule."
As for the complexion of the race, Garoffalo said, "It's going to be a full field with a lot of traffic, but my horse has the versatility to run right behind the speed and close to the lead. I don't think that will be a problem for him. If the pace is slow, he could be on the lead with no problem."
Garoffalo feels Wildcat Red fits well with the competition he'll be facing on Saturday (for a full preview of the Fountain of Youth, click here).
"Commissioner has already won at the distance, so that's a big advantage for him. But he's coming out of a race that, from my point of view, didn't have a lot of competition. I think he beat a weaker group than the horses he's going to face next Saturday."
Garoffalo said Wildcat Red's main attribute is his competitiveness. "That's probably his weapon," he said. "He likes to fight and he likes to be on the lead, and now that he's become more mature, that competitiveness is still there, because he has the attitude of a racehorse."
In discussing Derby fever, Garoffalo said they are going to take it one step at a time and see in the Fountain of Youth how far Wildcat Red wants to go. Owner Delfino will fly to Florida from Venezuela for the race, he said.
"This race will be very important, because depending on the result, we will be thinking about going to Kentucky," he said. "From this weekend on, we'll make our plans. Horses will surprise you all the time, especially when they're young, and you never really know for sure how far they can go."
Garoffalo hopes to turn doubters into believers on Feb. 22. With a glass-half-full attitude, the trainer's unwavering confidence in Wildcat Red is both contagious and endearing.
"When I bought the horse, I was sure he was going to be very competitive, but you never know how far you can go," said Garoffalo. "But as long as you know the horse has the quality and class, anything can happen. At the bottom of your heart, you know he can do it."