Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Winning With Grace, Honor, And ‘Strength’

by | 12.14.2019 | 2:06am
Co-owner Onofrio Pecoraro, left, has a moment with Mo Forza after their victory in the Grade I, $300,000 Hollywood Derby, Saturday, November 30, 2019 at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, Del Mar CA.© BENOIT PHOTO

It is exceedingly rare, both on the racetrack and in the rest of the world, to find the kind of person about whom no one has anything negative to say. Onofrio Pecoraro knows the value of such a man, which is why he turned to former trainer Barry Abrams when he wanted to get into Thoroughbred ownership.

“He's a rare individual,” Pecoraro said. “He's the kind of guy you leave the keys to your house or your checkbook and never have to worry. I've always trusted him, and in his vision.”

Abrams, the trainer of Grade 1 winners like Unusual Suspect and Golden Doc A, was diagnosed with throat cancer 15 years ago and lost half of his voice box to surgery in 2005. Six years later the cancer returned, and Abrams overcame incredible odds to make it through a second, very difficult surgery on his throat.

Southern California horsemen stepped up to help run Abrams' barn during the five-month recovery period, but Abrams made the decision to step away from training in 2016. He's still heavily involved in the horse business, however, breeding and racing in the name of Bardy Farm, which gets its name from both his first name and that of his wife, Dyan.

Abrams' friendship and business relationship with Pecoraro began in 2009, and it hit a high point on Breeders' Cup Saturday at Santa Anita this year. The pair co-own a colt named Mo Forza, who at 18-1 odds came flying home to win the third race on the undercard, the G2 Twilight Derby.

The winner's circle that afternoon overflowed with emotion, and officials graciously waited for Abrams to make his way down from the stands for the trophy presentation. Pecoraro and Abrams embraced and their eyes filled with tears.

“Winning a Grade 2 was like winning the World Series to me,” Pecoraro explained. “But then to see him, and knowing what he's dealt with, it was just over the top.”

The ride was just beginning, however.

Four weeks later Mo Forza ran down the leaders to win the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar. Abrams couldn't attend the races that day, but Pecoraro knows he was there in spirit.

“I'm still riding a high,” said Pecoraro. “We went from a maiden win to a Grade 2 to a Grade 1 in just 12 weeks. It was very emotional.”

They may only have been in business together for 10 years, but Pecoraro has admired Abrams from afar for decades. In the 1970s, Abrams made a habit of stopping by a meat shop in San Diego's Little Italy owned by Pete DiSalvo, who happened to be Pecoraro's uncle's father-in-law.

“He used to bring people in with him and order them sausage sandwiches,” Pecoraro remembered. “I wasn't at a point where I was ready to own horses then, but I always loved and followed the sport and I knew who I wanted to work with when the time came.”

Pecoraro built his commercial painting business in San Diego, and when he was ready in 2009 contacted Vincenzo Lorenzo to set up a meeting with Abrams. The pair hit it off instantly. In the past 10 years they've owned approximately 20 horses together, sometimes along with Madeline Auerbach, though Mo Forza is the best one by far.

It was in 2016 that Abrams first told Pecoraro about his homebred colt, then only three months old.

“He said he was thinking about selling him, but that he'd hang on to him and race him if I wanted to buy in,” Pecoraro recalled. “He liked the colt, and that was good enough for me.

“Then he told me, 'Now that you're owner of the horse you have to come up with a champion name.' Well, 'Forza' means strength in Italian, and Barry liked the name.”

By Uncle Mo and out of the Unusual Heat mare Inflamed, the Abrams-bred Mo Forza took some time to come into his own. Sent from Taylor Made to trainer Brian Lynch, the colt came up with shin splints in his 2-year-old season and had to return to the farm for six months of rest. When the time came to start him back again, Abrams suggested moving Mo Forza out to California with Peter Miller.

His debut in early June at Santa Anita saw Mo Forza finish third, but Pecoraro was encouraged by the way the colt made up a bunch of ground in the stretch. A few races later, running against winners (though he was still a maiden at the time) at Del Mar, Mo Forza got beat a half-inch for the win.

“He really galloped out strong that day, and that's when I started thinking this horse might be really special,” said Pecoraro.

Mo Forza broke his maiden next out and was immediately stepped up to the G2 level, but drew post 13 for the Twilight Derby.

“Barry told me he thought there'd be a few scratches, so we wouldn't be out as wide,” Pecoraro said. “And we had Rosario, one of the best turf riders in the country. Sure enough, there were two scratches from the race that morning, and Barry texted me, 'I'll see you in the winner's circle.'”

Following that 1 ¾-length triumph, there was a four-week respite before the G1 Hollywood Derby, so it seemed like a good opportunity to test Mo Forza against other 3-year-olds. This time the colt drew the rail, but Miller brought Paco Lopez out to ride.

“He didn't touch the horse down the lane,” Pecoraro said. “These jockeys really know these horses, and it looked like he could have won by more than the three-quarters of a length if he'd wanted to. It was just incredible to watch.”

Now the plan for Mo Forza is to target a race on opening day at Santa Anita Park, Dec. 26.

“Barry allowed me to get into this horse, and I'm on a high that I just can't describe,” Pecoraro said. “I've had a lot of successes in life, but this is one of the best feelings I've ever had.”

The elation isn't just about the horse's success, though Pecoraro enjoys the victories and visiting with Mo Forza on the backside a couple times a week when he's near his home in Del Mar.

Rather, Pecoraro's emotion is magnified because of his respect for Abrams.

“Barry describes humbleness to a 'T,'” said Pecoraro. “You know, we complain because we think we have issues, but we really don't. Barry has dealt with his health issues with grace and honor, and he still lives life to the fullest every single day.”

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