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.