He operates a stable of just six horses at Parx Racing, but 44-year-old trainer Luis Carvajal Jr. is currently on his way to contest the biggest race of his career. Imperial Hint, a 4-year-old son of Imperialism, is taking his connections on the ride of a lifetime as they travel to the United Arab Emirates for the Dubai World Cup Carnival.
“It's not just a one-in-a-million opportunity,” said Carvajal, “it's like one in two million.”
Imperial Hint burst onto the radar last month with his win in the G3 General George Stakes at Laurel Park, sprinting seven furlongs in a sharp 1:21.20 to earn the second-highest TimeFormUS speed figure of 2017, a 131, behind only Arrogate at 139. The victory, in which Imperial Hint defeated top sprinter Stallwalkin' Dude, earned the colt an invitation to contest the Group 1 Golden Shaheen in Dubai.
The General George was Carvajal's first graded stakes victory and also the first for owner Raymond Mamone, with whom Carvajal has been friends for nearly 20 years. The trainer was thrilled to receive the Dubai invitation but said he wasn't surprised at Imperial Hint's performance.
“I knew he was fast since the first time I breezed him,” Carvajal said. “I've never had a 2-year-old work three furlongs that fast in his first breeze.”
Imperial Hint's first start in February of 2016 drew a lot of attention when he broke his maiden by 4 ¼ lengths at Tampa Bay Downs, burning through seven furlongs in 1:22.39. Imperial Hint's second start was equally as impressive when the Florida-bred improved on his seven-furlong time at Tampa to win the Ocala Breeders' Sales Sophomore Stakes by 6 ¾ lengths in 1:22.15.
The only issue was Imperial Hint's diminutive size; even today, the colt stands only 15 hands tall. Carvajal attempted to step up his training and entered the colt in a pair of graded stakes, with a four-week break between races, but Imperial Hint didn't respond the way he'd hoped, finishing well off the board in both of those starts.
“I've learned that he does better with less training,” Carvajal said. “He doesn't need very much to stay fit, and I figured out how to let him tell me when he wants to do a little more.”
It seems to be working. Imperial Hint got right back to business, finishing first and second in a pair of allowance races. Three starts later, he won Laurel's listed Fire Plug Stakes by 3 ¼ lengths, leading the connections to try him in the General George.
“He did grow, eventually,” Carvajal laughed. “Just not taller. He grew out to the sides, like me.”
A native of Chile, Carvajal first thought he might follow his father into the saddle as a jockey. Luis Carvajal Sr. won approximately 1000 races in Chile, a significant number considering the limited racing opportunities. Carvajal Jr. quickly grew too tall for those aspirations but had already fallen in love with the sport of horse racing.
Seeing his son's interest in the sport, in 1988 Carvajal Sr. decided to bring him to the United States, where the opportunities for a career would be much better than in Chile. Carvajal Jr. was just 15 years old at the time. It would be a short-lived move for Carvajal Sr., who returned to Chile to ride after a few years.
Carvajal Jr., however, found work at the track for trainer Angel Penna Jr. He galloped horses in the mornings and quickly learned the ropes as an assistant trainer, soaking in all Penna had to teach him.
“He is a classy, classy man,” Carvajal said of Penna. “Still today, if I have a question about something, I can always call him and he is happy to help me.”
In 1997, Carvajal took advantage of the opportunity to become an assistant trainer for Monmouth Park stalwart Bob Durso. Carvajal later toyed with the idea of becoming a pilot, earning his license, but in 2006 a heart attack forced Durso to take a step back. Durso turned the reins of his 13-horse stable over to Carvajal, and all the owners, including long-time client Mamone, were happy with the decision and stayed on with the young, new trainer.
“Mr. Durso was an incredible man,” said Carvajal. “Unfortunately he passed away, but I know he would be very proud of me going to Dubai.”
Carvajal's father, involved in a racetrack accident in Chile which resulted in paralysis, is also quite proud of his son. That incident, however, made Carvajal Jr. reconsider riding in the mornings. The trainer doesn't gallop his own horses anymore, a decision which undoubtedly pleases his wife — they have a new son, just four months old.
“I'm getting too heavy now, anyway,” he laughed. “Besides, I can see more when I'm on the ground.”
Over the course of his young career, Carvajal has accumulated 80 victories for earnings of more than $2.5 million, keeping his small string at Parx and focusing on the individual needs of each horse. The Pennsylvania track has been good to him and his young family, and when a winter snowstorm threatened Imperial Hint's plane ride to the UAE, said Carvajal, racing secretary Sam Elliott was more than happy to help make alternative plans.
Though the trip to Dubai is an amazing opportunity for the small-time conditioner, Carvajal insists he would not take the horse all the way there if he did not believe in his chances.
“This horse is training so good right now,” said Carvajal. “He travels so easy, and he is so laid back, like nothing upsets him. I think we have a big chance.”
The $2 million Golden Shaheen, contested over 1,200 meters (six furlongs), has drawn a very competitive field this year. Fellow Americans expected to ship over over for the race include Mind Your Biscuits, Stallwalkin' Dude, and St Joe Bay, plus several international contenders will be tough as well. But with four-time champion jockey Javier Castellano booked to ride Imperial Hint, Carvajal is excited.
“It's a perfect match,” the trainer said, noting that Castellano was aboard his colt for an allowance win late last year. “My horse isn't too big, and neither is Javier. But they both have big hearts.”
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