Math Wizard’s surreal journey to the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic

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John Fanelli, a man of modest means whose stable is comprised of inexpensive stock, was in hot pursuit of a horse on Jan. 31 at Florida’s Gulfstream Park.

He had spotted Math Wizard, a 3-year-old running for a claiming price of $25,000 at one mile on the dirt. He is a fan of the horse’s sire, Algorithms, and he noted that the youngster, with breeding to suggest he would welcome distance, had yet to run long.

Fanelli envisioned Math Wizard possibly being competitive in allowance company. His trainer, Saffie Joseph Jr., saw some upside as well and agreed to drop a claim slip. Fanelli, who lives in Williamstown, N.J., arranged to have the money wired from his local bank into his horseman’s account at Gulfstream.

With the race rapidly approaching, Joseph called Fanelli to inform him that the money had not yet arrived. Another of his owners was interested in the same horse. What should he do?

Fanelli was adamant that he wanted Math Wizard and he reiterated the importance of the matter to his bank, explaining that time was of the essence. According to the owner, the money hit his horseman’s account 15 minutes before post time.

Math Wizard responded to the added ground with an 18 ½-length romp; Fanelli won a seven-way shake for a  horse that went on to accomplish more than he or his trainer ever imagined.

Math Wizard is expected to go on to the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita after pulling one of the biggest upsets of the year. At 31-1, he responded to a masterful ride from Irad Ortiz Jr. and rallied to defeat Mr. Money by a neck in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 21 at Parx Racing, Fanelli’s home track in Bensalem, Pa.

If there was ever a story to inspire owners who dream big without the deep pockets to match their ambition, this is it.

“I think it’s great for the game when you hear stories like this,” said Fanelli, 49, a general manager at a Turnersville, N.J., car dealership. He grew up in South Philadelphia.

Joseph, 32, will never forget that Pennsylvania Derby, a race in which the owner persuaded him to run. It marked the first Grade 1 triumph for the third-generation horseman. He arrived in South Florida from his native Barbados with two horses eight years ago and slowly built his operation, all but pleading with owners to give him a try.

“It meant everything. Words can’t describe it,” Joseph said of the Pennsylvania Derby. “As a kid growing up, you imagine the big races in your head and winning big races. To see it finally happen is really fulfilling. You are very thankful and blessed that it’s come true. These are opportunities you want. You want to be able to do these kinds of things.”

Even as the trainer saddled Math Wizard for the Pennsylvania Derby, he was not contemplating victory. “I was hoping he would run third or fourth,” he admitted.

Math Wizard had run credibly in graded-stakes races without breaking through. He was fourth in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial, second in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby, third in the Grade 2 Indiana Derby and sixth in the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby.

Math Wizard, a May foal, perhaps signaled that he was ready for the big time when he worked five furlongs in 1:01.65 on Sept. 15 at Gulfstream Park. “It was just phenomenal how he galloped out,” Joseph said, adding, “His work was spectacular and there was no regression from the work. Everything was just forward progress.”

The trainer is closely monitoring the blossoming 3-year-old with an eye toward the Classic. Fanelli is a gambling man who briefly played professional poker. He is eager to again swing for the fences. Joseph, leaning on two previous generations of experience, knows the horse must always show the way.

“He came out of the race really well. He’s eating good,” the trainer said. “Right now, we’re ahead of schedule, but things can always change with a horse.” He also is debating the immediate future of Chance It, a candidate for the $2 million TVG Juvenile that responded to its first two-turn test by winning the In Reality by 6 ¼ lengths at Gulfstream.

For Fanelli, to go from a horse valued at $25,000 at the end of January to a Classic prospect seems surreal.

“If you put this in a movie,” he said, “people wouldn’t believe the movie.”

And the full story may not yet be told.

Flightline, Pletcher, Godolphin lead way at Eclipse Awards

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Pat McDonogh/USA TODAY NETWORK
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Flightline ran away in all six of his races, and ran away with top honors at the Eclipse Awards on Thursday night.

And trainer Todd Pletcher, for the first time in nearly a decade, received the sport’s top prize as well.

Flightline – the now-retired winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic to cap an unbeaten six-race career – won Horse of the Year as well as the Eclipse as top Older Dirt Male. It was no surprise that Flightline took home both awards, and he’s now standing stud.

“We’ll hope that his future is as bright as his past,” co-owner Kosta Hronis said.

Godolphin was also a double winner, sweeping the Eclipses as top owner and top breeder for the second consecutive year. It was also the third consecutive top-owner Eclipse for Godolphin.

“This is truly a golden era for Godolphin racing,” said Michael Banahan, the stable’s director of bloodstock. “And these awards and accolades recognize how special it is.”

It was Pletcher’s eighth Eclipse, extending his record for the most by any trainer, and his first since 2014. It was one of the few close races in the voting; Pletcher got 108 first-place votes, while four-time Eclipse winner Chad Brown got 95 and finished second.

“This really is not an individual award. This is a team award,” Pletcher said. “This is an award about the owners, and most importantly, the horses.”

Irad Ortiz Jr. won the Eclipse as top jockey for the fourth time in the last five years; he tied Pat Day and Javier Castellano for third-most in history, behind only seven-time winner Jerry Bailey and five-time winner Laffit Pincay Jr.

Ortiz led all jockeys with more than $37 million in purses in 2022.

“Wow,” Ortiz said. “It’s been an amazing year for me.”

Forte won the Eclipse as 2-year-old male, and will enter this year’s Triple Crown season as one of the early favorites.

“We’re all in this game for a horse like Forte,” said Mike Repole, the horse’s co-owner along with Florida Panthers owner Vincent Viola and Teresa Viola. “We’re all in this game to one day maybe own a 2-year-old that has a chance. It’s great to have the Kentucky Derby favorite. … Forte’s an incredible horse.”

Epicenter won the 3-year-old male Eclipse, after running second at both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, then winning the Jim Dandy and Travers at Saratoga over the summer.

Wonder Wheel was the winner as 2-year-old filly, while Nest won the Eclipse in the 3-year-old filly division. Malathaat was the Eclipse winner for older dirt female, Goodnight Olive for female sprinter and Regal Glory for female turf horse.

Elite Power was picked as the top male sprinter, Modern Games won the Eclipse for male turf horse, and Hewick was the Eclipse winner in the steeplechase division.

Jose Antonio Gomez won as top apprentice jockey.

The Eclipse Awards are voted on by members of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form and National Turf Writers And Broadcasters.

Trainer Bob Baffert’s ban from racing in New York is over

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Courier Journal/USA TODAY Sports
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Bob Baffert can once again enter horses at New York’s major tracks.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s one-year ban by the New York Racing Association ended Wednesday, allowing him to enter horses as soon as Thursday.

“I was disappointed they even did it, but it’s water under the bridge,” Baffert told The Associated Press by phone.

He was suspended last June for repeated medication violations, although none of them occurred in New York. He was barred from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A panel credited Baffert for time served for an initial suspension, which allowed him to return this week.

Aqueduct is currently holding its 44-day winter meet that runs through March 26. Baffert doesn’t typically run horses this time of year in New York; he targets the biggest stakes races at Belmont in the spring and Saratoga in the summer.

Baffert remains under a two-year ban by Churchill Downs Inc., which sidelined him after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a substance that is not allowed on race day. The penalty expires shortly after the Kentucky Derby in May. However, Baffert is fighting the suspension in federal court.

The Southern California-based trainer has a big weekend coming up around the country, although not in New York.

He has horses running at three tracks on Saturday.

Defunded is entered in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in Florida, where Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes will be on hand.

Arabian Knight goes into the $750,000 Southwest Stakes as the early favorite at Oaklawn in Arkansas. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby prep race a record-tying five times and will travel to Hot Springs to watch the 3-year-old colt.

“It’s going to be a good test for him. The only way to find out is to run him long,” he said. “It’s going to take a superior horse to do that and I’m hoping that he is.”

The Southwest offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top five finishers. Arabian Knight won’t receive any points regardless of his placing because of Baffert’s Derby ban.

Hopper will run in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

On Sunday at the same track, Baffert has entered four of the five horses set to run in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes for 3-year-olds.