Growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, Thoroughbred racing grabbed Ruben Sierra’s attention at an early age. He was all of 6 when Cannonero II graded the nation’s attention when he was shipped to the United States and pulled off a stunning upset in the 1971 Kentucky Derby and then won the Preakness.
Forty years later, Sierra hopes to make history again when his homebred colt, Decisive Moment, makes the starting gate for the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). The Florida-bred son of With Distinction made his way to Barn 41 in Louisville and the Derby field via graded stakes-placings in the Boyd Gaming Delta Jackpot (gr. III) and Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. II). He races for Sierra’s Just For Fun Stable.
“I remember people going crazy in the streets and screaming,” the 46-year-old Sierra said of Canonero II’s monumental win. That excitement stayed with him and he followed the races in Venezuela while growing up His father also gave him his first Thoroughbred when he was 12 years old. At 17 he came to the U.S. where he graduated from Memphis State University with a degree in mechanical engineering with minors in mathematics and economics.
After working in the grain business for 14 years, he moved to Florida where he is now a partner in Agritrade. Agritrade exports grain from the U.S. to Latin American countries and has a grain operation in Paraguay and a vegetable oil refinery in Peru.
Business is good, according to Sierra, so good it allows him to have a farm near Ocala with about 50 horses with 15 broodmares. His Thoroughbred operation is clearly “Just For Fun.”
Adding to the fun is trainer Juan Arias, who happens to share the same name as the trainer of Canonero II four decades ago.
A former jockey who notes he won some 500 races from 1980-90, Arias outgrew his profession and turned his attention to training. He worked under trainer Richard Root for 10 years, then shipped to the West Coast and worked for another former jockey-turned-trainer, Wesley Ward.
“Working with Wesley was excellent; we made a great team,” Arias said. “But I had to go back to Florida for personal reasons; my family didn’t want to travel to California.”
Arias returned to the Sunshine state and worked with trainer Happy Alter for about two years before going out on his own.
In Decisive Moment, Arias and Sierra have a fighter on their hands. Both remark that he has good speed and no quit in him.
Decisive Moment broke his maiden first time out July 24 at Calder at 37-1, then ran fourth behind Gourmet Dinner in the Dr. Fager Stakes, the first leg of the Florida Stallion Series at Calder. After an allowance effort, Decisive Moment ran third in the seven-furlong In Reality Stakes, the second leg of the FSS. With Gourmet Dinner headed to the $1 million Delta Jackpot at Delta Downs in Louisiana, Arias figured “we were close to him…why not take a shot?”
Decisive Moment ran second to Gourmet Dinner in the Jackpot, picking up a huge paycheck. The good times continued in the Louisiana with a wire-to-wire victory in the $250,000 Jean Lafitte Stakes Jan. 14.
“The Jean Lafitte used to be the prep for the Delta Jackpot, so I figure since we ran in the Jackpot, why not run for what used to be the prep,” Arias said. “It wasn’t graded money, but $250,000 is $250,000.”
Following a fifth-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds, Decisive Moment ran a strong second to Animal Kingdom after having the lead in the Spiral on Turfway’s Polytrack.
Prior to the post positions being drawn, Arias figures his early-burning mount will be among the early leaders May 7.
“Speed…that’s a good tool to have,” Arias said. “When you have early speed with 20 horses and you can be up there in the first flight, that’s a lot easier for the jockey to place him and make him comfortable. If they want to go real fast out there, we can lay back, if nobody wants to go, we may be out there winging it.”
Regardless of the pace scenario, Sierra plans on having a great time Derby week.
“Today? I’m having fun,” Sierra said amid the backstretch hubbub Wednesday morning. “This is a dream for me. All of my life I’ve dreamed of participating in the Derby. I’m thrilled to have a chance…with a homebred, so that makes it even more sweet. I’m just happy to be at Churchill Downs for this event.”
After all, he’s here at Churchill Downs “just for fun.”