Owner John Fanelli called trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. on January 31 of this year to ask him about claiming a 3-year-old son of Algorithms for a $25,000 tag at Gulfstream Park.
“His numbers were progressively getting better,” Joseph said, “and his dam was a Grade 3 winner over a route of ground, and he had never run a route. We thought he might be a good two-turn starter allowance horse.”
As soon as the horses left the gate, Joseph found out there were five other trainers with claims in on that particular colt. Watching Math Wizard open up to win by 18 ½ lengths in the stretch, Joseph felt relieved to learn he and Fanelli had won the shake and would be the colt's new trainer.
“We were excited, and we were hopeful that he'd be a nice horse,” Joseph said. “There was a nice allowance filly, Queen of Beas, who ran a mile on the same card (in 1:36.55), and he ran faster than her (in 1:36.50). That's when I really started to have hope.”
In the next several weeks, Fanelli sold shares in Math Wizard to several of Joseph's other owners with a goal of running the colt in an early prep for this year's Kentucky Derby. Math Wizard came up with a mild case of colic shortly thereafter and plans to do so had to be abandoned.
“It wasn't a bad colic because we caught it early, but it took a lot out of him,” said Joseph. “It took him some time to recover, and when we got him back to the races it was in a starter allowance and he was just lackluster in finishing second.”
The starter allowance race was on March 15, so the final round of Derby prep races was the only option left to Math Wizard. Fanelli was insistent the colt had the talent, so Joseph gathered up his courage and entered Math Wizard in the Wood Memorial.
Looking up at the tote board that day at Aqueduct and noting that his colt's odds were the longest of the field at 65-1, Joseph worried.
“Oh man, how did I listen to John,” he remembered thinking. “But then he made a good middle move, and kind of flattened out in the stretch, and then he galloped out in front of all of them.”
Math Wizard finished fourth in the Wood, not collecting enough points to run beneath the Twin Spires but earning the faith of his connections. From that point forward, the goal became to win one of the other Derbies around the country, perhaps in Ohio or West Virginia.
Joseph pulled Math Wizard's blinkers before his next start in the Oaklawn Invitational, where he finished fourth. Then the colt ran a close second to the talented Owendale in the G3 Ohio Derby, and he ran a good third behind Mr. Money in the G3 Indiana Derby.
Next out, in the West Virginia Derby, Math Wizard was a disappointing sixth.
“The Ohio race taxed him a bit, and we left him in Kentucky afterward instead of bringing him back home to Florida,” said Joseph. “I think that was a mistake in hindsight. He seems like he likes a little more time between his races, too.”
After West Virginia, Fanelli set his eyes on the Pennsylvania Derby. With heavy favorite Maximum Security expected to show up, the field would be small, so there was a good chance to finish third or fourth, reasoned Joseph.
Still, he wasn't convinced the colt was ready, and in the week leading up the race, Joseph didn't want to put Math Wizard on a van from Florida to Pennsylvania on Monday when he'd breezed on Sunday.
Fanelli, ever the optimist, found a plane headed that way on Thursday.
“He just had a great week,” Joseph said of Math Wizard. “I looked for every reason not to put him on the plane, but he didn't give me one.”
Watching Math Wizard win the Pennsylvania Derby by closing into a slow pace, Joseph could not have been more proud.
“He earned it, he really had to quicken,” said the trainer. “John was right. I told him, 'John, everything I tell you, you just do the opposite!'”
It wasn't Joseph's first time feeling the pressure of a big race. The Barbados native grew up watching his father train racehorses for the twice-a-month racing in that country, and took out his own training license at the age of 18. Four years later, a colt his father picked out and that Joseph owned with his brother would win eight straight races, including the Barbados Triple Crown.
“In Barbados, the fans and the kids can walk around the stable area, so when the groom was giving this horse a bath the kids would ask him, 'Hey mister, what's his name?'” said Joseph. “And the groom would say, 'Are you talkin to me?' and the kids would say, 'Yes, what's his name?' The groom would laugh and say, 'That is his name!'”
Areutalkintome, a son of Arazi stallion Zwick, made Joseph the youngest trainer of a Barbados Triple Crown winner at the age of 22. The colt, who now stands at the family's farm in Barbados, was also part of the reason Joseph made the decision to move to the United States.
“There were only two other horses on the track that morning, they were breezing,” Joseph explained. “Areutalkintome was jogging the wrong way, but one of the workers got loose and turned around and ended up running up his rear end. Areutalkintome lost his rider and took five or six laps around the (six-furlong) track before we could catch him. He needed more than a year off after that, and I was upset.”
Beyond his star runner's injury, Joseph wanted to make a career out of training racehorses. He'd spent a couple years in Miami for high school before getting his trainer's license in Barbados, and the racing in South Florida had captured his imagination.
In 2011 he brought two horses from Barbados up to Florida, and eventually he got stalls at a training center near Calder Race Course. Joseph and his brother purchased a few horses at the OBS sales that spring, and he was up to eight horses by the end of the year.
“At the end of the day, you need opportunities,” he said. “You can't show that you can train horses unless you have horses to train, so I was blessed to be able to buy a few. The business gradually built up since then, but I'd say it's really taken off in the past two years.”
Claiming a horse like Math Wizard and saddling him to win the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby has been the pinnacle of the 32-year-old Joseph's young career so far. He also won this year's spring meet training title at Gulfstream Park and has a talented 2-year-old Florida-bred stakes winner in the barn by the name of Chance It.
“I used to dream of things like this all the time, but I never imagined it would become my reality,” said Joseph. “You know, it's called horse racing for a reason. You can't do it without a good horse, because you can't really make a horse run faster. You can only help him achieve his potential.”
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