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


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.

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests


Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

RELATED: Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.