While waiting for trainer Michael Pender to answer his cell phone, one is treated to the baleful country blues of Hank Williams—the real one—indicating that Pender must be a cowboy from the dusty Plains. Turns out he’s a Southern California native who is today working and living right where he was brought up, in the shadow of Santa Anita Park. He’ll get to travel to the Midwest this week, however, when he brings Jeranimo to Louisville for a run in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT).
With Martin Garcia named to ride, Jeranimo drew the 7 post and is 20-1 on the morning line.
“My mom brought me to Santa Anita when I was seven and said she wanted to show me the greatest game around,” remembered Pender, 45. “She bought me a $2 win ticket and I fell in love with the horses and never wanted to leave the place. I got pushed to go to college, but after that all roads led back to Santa Anita.”
The road took Pender briefly to Texas, where he worked for legendary Quarter Horse trainer Bubba Cascio for a spell before returning home to the West Coast. Once back, Pender formed owner partnerships and spread the horses around among various trainers. He asked a lot of questions of his conditioners and learned vicariously through them. In 2005, he decided to switch gears and begin training the horses he owned.
“I took out my trainer’s license, fired a bunch of these guys, and branched out on my own,” Pender said, laughing. “I won with some of these cheap claimers, and got the attention of (owner) B.J. Wright. He called me and said, ‘I didn’t know you were training horses.’ And I replied, ‘Neither did I.’ So off we went.”
In an incredible turn of events, Pender and Wright’s son, Jay, had gone to elementary school together in Glendale, Calif., and played on the football team there, which the elder Wright coached.
“B.J. asked if I remembered when I was his QB,” said Pender. “Then he said now I was going to be his trainer.”
Wright sent Pender a rogue colt named Benson Road who nobody had been able to handle. That was the acid test.
“He couldn’t get a half in :55 and change when I first got him,” Pender said, laughing again. “Don’t ask me how, but we finally got him going :47 and change and figured we might win something with him after all. We got him into the winner’s circle and then got some more and then we went to the sales and bought good ones like Jeranimo and Ultimate Eagle and Polonius. B.J. Wright has really taken me to the next level.”
A son of Congaree bred in Florida by BryLynn Farm, Jeranimo cost $70,000 at the 2008 Barretts May sale of 2-year-olds, the same price Ultimate Eagle cost out of the Ocala Breeders' Sale Company’s April 2010 sale. Polonius was a $150,000 purchase out of Barretts March 2007 sale of 2-year-olds.
Polonius won the Will Rogers Stakes (gr. III) at Hollywood Park in 2008 and two years later Jeranimo hit the scene. The son of Congaree won the Strub Stakes (gr. II) and the San Gabriel Stakes (gr. IIT) in 2010 and came back this Oct. 8 to take the Oak Tree Mile (gr. IIT). One week later, Ultimate Eagle prevailed in the Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT). Jeranimo has won six of 22 lifetime starts and $660,400.
“I think I have a good eye,” Pender noted. “As a team, B.J. Wright and Rick Taylor and I have done some pretty good things together. B.J. has a gift for pedigrees. He’s been at it forever. We look for the classic horse; we don’t buy sprinters.”
As for the transition to becoming a trainer, Pender said the organizational and business aspects weren’t that difficult to master, but the hours required are another story.
“The biggest challenge is waking up at 5 in the morning,” he said. “No way I thought I was going to be able to do that. Then I started going face down into the pillow at 6:30 at night and figured out this is how everybody is able to do it. Those dog-day hours you have to put in every day are tough.”
Having a runner like Jeranimo makes it easier to react to the alarm clock, however. After racing him between a mile and a mile and a quarter for the past two seasons, Pender decided to narrow the scope and train the horse as a miler.
“We’ve tinkered around with his training a little bit and we focused on training him as a straight miler,” Pender said. “As a result, he’s showing a lot more pace and sitting closer. In the Oak Tree Mile he got first jump on the field and when Mr. Commons came out of the clouds he couldn’t catch him. Jeranimo, when he has the lead at the eighth pole, has never relinquished it, so that’s our idea for the Breeders’ Cup. When he gets the trip and the right fractions, he’s always right there.
“I realize there are a lot more credentialed horses in the Breeders’ Cup, but he’s doing so well we have to go. It’s pretty amazing for me five years after winning my first race to have a horse like Jeranimo. I’m pinching myself every day.”
Pender, married and the father of two, will have his family with him cheering him on in Louisville. If Jeranimo should upset the Mile, Pender will have the perfect song to put on his cell phone: Hank Williams’ “You Win Again.”