Debonair Joe posts Malibu upset.

Debonair Joe posts Malibu upset.

Benoit photos

Santa Anita Race Report: No Average Joe

Published in the Jan. 4 issue of The Blood-Horse
As Juan Pablo Silva leaned against a fence the crisp morning of Dec. 27, staring out over the expanse of dirt that comprises Santa Anita's final turn, the gleam in his eye was obvious. The moment was already his. Those passing by simply confirmed that it wasn't a dream after all.

"Hey, congratulations! What a job you've done with that horse, huh?" lauded longtime jocks' agent Vince DeGregory. "My God, what an improvement!"

"Way to go, buddy! That was a helluva claim," smiled fellow trainer Leonard Duncan, wrapping an arm around Silva in enthusiasm. "That might be the best claim I ever saw since Southern Truce, maybe, or Exchange. Helluva claim."

Duncan's point was well taken. In recent years there have been blessed few who managed to climb from the sport's hollows to the tip of the mountain--names like Budroyale, Early Pioneer, Famous Digger, and Ringaskiddy immediately come to mind. Southern Truce and Exchange, though, were two mares whose tales are definitely hard to top.

Southern Truce was just a nondescript claimer when trainer Roger Stein picked her up for $16,000 in early 1991. The daughter of Truce Maker soon became a stakes winner on turf and dirt, hitting a career peak in 1993 when she surprised Paseana in the prestigious Santa Margarita Handicap (gr. I). Likewise, trainer Bill Spawr struck gold when he collared Exchange after her second start. He got her for $50,000. She made over a million in return, becoming one of the finest grass mares California has ever seen.

Debonair Joe, the pride of Silva's eight-horse stable, may have trumped them all. It took less than four months--just 97 days to be exact--for the gelding to morph from a $12,500 dropout to the hero of Santa Anita's seasonal kickoff, the $200,000 Malibu Stakes (gr. I).

"Shocking. That's the only word you can say about it," said his beaming owner, Lynne Ristad. "I was just hoping to come in the money. I'm very happy, very blessed, and Juan's done a great job. I couldn't say enough about him."

Indeed, Silva hasn't made a bad move with Debonair Joe since he tagged the now 4-year-old son of Ole' at Fairplex Park. He wasn't the most handsome individual, Silva admits, when he got his first glimpse that September afternoon--"You should have seen him. He was just sucked in," the trainer said, his hand squeezing an imaginary lemon to make his point. "He didn't have any life." Yet his coat was good, his legs clean, and he walked smoothly. But despite a decent background, the bay really gave Silva no reason to think big early on.

"You know, when I ran him the first time for $32,000 and he won, I was really happy because when you claim a horse for $12,500, sometimes it's hard to win a race for $16,000 or $20,000," Silva said. "Bringing him to Santa Anita and winning for $32,000? That's like a home run. I was really proud of him."

His temporary tumble into the lower claiming ranks, according to Silva, could be blamed on a nasty infection that had lingered for months, but his turnaround was almost immediate. By the time Silva had him ready to race, the sickness had been wiped out. He'd also learned a few things about the gelding as well.

"When I put shoes on this horse, he gets a little body sore behind. I took the shoes off and I saw a big difference, so I gallop him every day with no shoes," he explained, adverting to a technique he gleaned during a short stint with trainer Richard Mandella a few years back. "And I work him easy. He's not a horse that likes to train hard. If you trained him hard, he would not run. He likes to be fresh."

The payoffs were never higher--literally-- than the afternoon of Dec. 7, when Silva took a shot at Hollywood's Vernon O. Underwood Stakes (gr. III) and Debonair Joe flat-out stunned the field at 52-1. The resurrection seemed complete. Both Silva and Ristad figured it couldn't get any better. On Dec. 26, it did.

The Underwood had also been Debonair Joe's first collaboration with jockey Julie Krone. That day, Krone had left Debonair Joe to his own devices early, then commenced a sweeping late burst that froze the competition right at the wire. The Malibu, save for an extra furlong, was virtually a duplicate performance.

"I just let the horse decide," Krone said, recalling her early tactics in the six-furlong Underwood. "I didn't pull on the reins, and I didn't chirp to him. And that's exactly what I did today. Almost to a 'T.' "

While Total Limit and American System charged for the turn, Krone and Debonair Joe had just one horse beaten down the backstretch. They were clear, though, avoiding a backspray of dirt, and began to pick off horses midway around the bend. Up ahead, Total Limit had pushed American System through a :44.35 half-mile, in the process leading their closest pursuers on a futile chase.

Turning for home, Debonair Joe was widest of all. But he was also moving in the fastest. A furlong out, he rolled by My Cousin Matt and Golden Hare, still three lengths behind the leaders. Shortening stride, American System soon abandoned the lead to Total Limit, a son of Boundary making just his fourth start for trainer Gary Mandella. Debonair Joe had Total Limit measured, though, picking him off at the wire to win by a head. American System was a half-length away in third. The final time was 1:22.40. Forgotten again, Debonair Joe returned $55.60, an all-time Malibu high.

"The horse is just getting better and better. And I don't know what is getting him so good," Silva confessed. "You know, I've been so lucky with this horse. That's it. You have to be lucky."

His stable isn't loaded with flashy pedigrees or million-dollar dreams. His owners haven't the means to write blank checks. The man scopes out prospects based not on bloodline but physiques. And somehow, there's always a big horse or two around the barn of Bruce Headley.

His latest standout is Got Koko, and the then 3-year-old filly broke through in a big way on Dec. 28, ripping apart a good field to win the $200,000 La Brea Stakes (gr. I) at seven furlongs. Though a 17-1 outsider, she made it look easy. Swooping past nearly the entire field, Got Koko took over for good passing the sixteenth pole. Co-owned by Headley with Paul Leung, the daughter of Signal Tap simply galloped past the finish, 3 1/4 lengths ahead of the rest. Spring Meadow beat out Erica's Smile and Bella Bellucci for second. The disappointment of the race, however, was clearly You. Questing after her fifth grade I of the year, the You and I filly was into the race from the break. When she grabbed the lead passing the quarter pole, many figured the La Brea was over.

"I thought so, too," sighed jockey Pat Valenzuela, aboard You for the first time. "I thought she'd pick it up and kick, just keep going and run away from them, and I couldn't get her to do that. She just wouldn't go on the last part. For a horse of her caliber not to go on the way she normally does, I was very shocked."

You finished a dull fifth, by far the worst performance of her otherwise stellar year. Headley and Solis, too, never got the chance to fully appreciate the La Brea. Barely a half-hour later, Solis was thrown hard to the turf in a violent one-horse spill that took the life of Most Likely, a 6-year-old gelding also trained by Headley. Taken to a nearby hospital where he remained overnight, Solis was released the following morning. Miraculously, he escaped the incident without serious injury.


(Chart, Equibase)