With fifteen dollars in his pocket and not much else, 18-year-old Leandro Mora spoke no English and possessed few marketable skills when he arrived at the Santa Anita barn of trainer Gary Jones in March, 1977. Jones, who would eventually earn induction into racing's Hall of Fame, gave Mora his first shot at attaining the American Dream, some 1,630 miles north of his native home in the state of Colima, Mexico.
“When I first came here, all I knew was that I wanted to try to get a job with the horses,” said Mora, 60, from Clockers' Corner on Friday morning. “At that time, everybody wanted to work for Gary Jones because he had good horses and he won a lot of races. A friend of mine had a brother-in-law that worked there, so that's how I got in. There was very little turnover, so there were no jobs available as a groom. So, I went to work walking hots and I just tried to learn as much as I could.
“I worked for Gary for about seven or eight months and then I went to work for David Bernstein, which was a good opportunity for me. By this time, I was grooming horses and I learned a lot because we had quite a few cheaper horses. The most expensive horse we had at first was a $25,000 claimer and the rest were basically 10 or twelve-five (thousand dollar) horses. That experience taught me a lot about how to take care of their legs and things like that.
“I was very fortunate, because David knew how badly I wanted to learn English and he helped me. I did everything I could to learn it. I went to the adult education program at Monrovia High School for three months and I watched cartoons. I watched shows like I Love Lucy, The Young and the Restless, The Rifleman, Dukes of Hazard and I listened to the radio. Eventually, I started to pick it up and I was speaking pretty good English.”
Five years after being hired by Bernstein, Mora found himself on the road.
“I like to travel and Dave knew it,” said Mora. “He had picked up a big owner, named Paul Lerner. Dave went to some sales and bought some nice horses for him and in the summer of 1983, he sent me to Louisiana Downs in Shreveport, with five horses, all owned by the same guy. Being on my own, away from our barn in California, taught me a lot and made me better.”
Following an eight-year run with Bernstein, Mora was hired by John Sadler, but lasted only three months.
“John had a good barn and he treated me very well, but it didn't work out. He had guys that had been working for him a long time and I guess you could say it just wasn't a good fit for me, but it ended up being a blessing.”
Hired on Dec. 24, 1986 by trainer Brian Mayberry, Mora would soon become an integral part of one of America's most successful operations, one that developed top 2-year-olds at an astonishingly successful rate.
“I was ready to go to work, but Brian told me 'Take Christmas Day off and you'll start on opening day at Santa Anita.' Brian and (his wife) Jeannie were family to me and not just with the horses, but life. They became like my adopted parents. I learned so much from them. They would never to go to 2-year-old in training sales, they would go to yearling sales and look at 300 to 400 horses and buy maybe just two or three.
“These horses got sent to a friend of theirs, Clyde Rice, in Ocala and then we would get 18 to 20 two-year-olds in March and April at Hollywood Park. The Siegel's (Jan, Mace & Samantha) owned most of our horses and Martin Pedroza won a ton of maiden races for us. I remember we won the Hollywood Juvenile two years in a row with Eddie Delahoussaye (1994, Altazaar and 1993, Ramblin Guy)* and he also won the (1994) Kentucky Oaks with Sardula. And, it was pretty amazing, but we also won five Landaluce's with 2-year-old fillies.”
Mora culminated a nearly 12-year run with the Mayberry family shortly after Brian succumbed to lung cancer on July 20, 1998. Following a 2 ½ year stint with trainer Tim Pinfield, Mora joined forces with Doug O'Neill in 2001 and they were soon on their way to becoming a national juggernaut.
“Doug and I hit it off right away,” he said. “Doug is a guy, if you know him, you can't leave him. He truly appreciates what everyone does and he thanks them all. We think alike. If you have a good, happy worker, he's going to give 100 percent to his stable.”
In a relationship that now spans 18 years, Mora, as O'Neill's chief assistant, has been a key factor in taking a number of training titles at all Southern California tracks along with tasting victory in a multitude of stakes, including the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I'll Have Another, 2016 Derby with Nyquist, and five Breeders' Cup wins spanning from 2005 through 2015.
“When people ask me about the horses, I tell them they are everything. I love history and I've read a lot about the U.S. Cavalry and how they treated their horses. In those days, the horses got fed, watered and bedded down before the men did. Without the horse, they had nothing and that's exactly the way it is here at the racetrack. We don't exist here without our horses. We love them and we give them the absolute best care.
“Every day on the racetrack with your horses is a fresh, new day. Every day is different. The best achievement is winning a race, any race and knowing that you helped him win.”
Although currently separated from his wife, who is the mother of their children, Roberto Carlos, 28 and Andrew Andreas, 25, Mora recently bought a home in nearby Glendora and is quick to acknowledge the opportunities that have come his way since immigrating as a teenager.
“My family has been so fortunate and we are very, very thankful to Santa Anita and the racing industry for providing the medical clinics that they have here. My wife and kids are still covered for everything and we also have been able to receive quite a bit of money for our retirement, thanks to a foundation that was set up many years ago.
“I knew there were opportunities here in the U.S.A. that didn't exist anywhere else. No other country in the world offers everyone, any race, color, the way of life we have here. As long as a person is intelligent, ready to work and is always in the process of learning and getting better, there are so many opportunities. A good listener never fails.”
Here's hoping Leandro Mora's story is indeed heard, far and wide.
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