California Chrome wasn't the only California-bred to make an impression at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Seven hours before the Kentucky Derby, trainer A. C. Avila sent a 4-year-old Cal-bred with one prior start out to win the day's third race, a six-furlong maiden special weight contest, by a whopping 14 lengths.
More than a few eyebrows were raised as the horse named Masochistic stopped the teletimer in 1:08.85 after leading throughout. The race was marred by a three-horse spill in which at least two other runners that finished the race were affected. Spill or no spill, it would have taken a Pegasus-like effort to catch the Avila trainee, who races for Los Pollos Hermanos Racing and Santa Ines Stable.
If Los Pollos Hermanos rings a bell, it should, if you were a fan of the “Breaking Bad” series on AMC. It's the fictitious fast-food chain owned by the character Gustavo “Gus” Fring.
The Derby day race was a marked improvement from Masochistic's previous effort, when the son of Sought After was never a factor, finishing fifth in a field of eight California-breds going to the post in a state-restricted maiden race at Santa Anita Park March 15.
In that race, Masochistic was ridden by Omar Berrio, regular rider in Southern California for Avila, a 60-year-old native of Brazil who came to the United States in 1990.
Victor Espinoza, who later on Derby day would win the Kentucky Derby aboard California Chrome, handled Masochistic for his maiden-breaking score.
Masochistic's March 15 debut was anything but normal.
Fourth choice in the betting at 8-1 that day, Berrio sat like a statue on the horse for nearly the entire six furlongs, weaving back and forth behind horses, then diving to the rail in the stretch. The ride was so lethargic the jockey was called in the next morning for a video review with the stewards, at which he was accompanied by Jockeys' Guild representative Darrel Haire.
“There was no discussion of the pertinent facts as a formal hearing will be set in the near future,” the stewards wrote in their daily minutes. “The Board of Stewards was concerned that Mr. Berrio prevented his horse from giving his best race. The horse was examined and tested post-race, and the CHRB investigators were directed to look into the matter.”
Three weeks later, blood and urine samples came back positive for the tranquilizer Acepromazine, a Class 3 drug under California Horse Racing Board rules. A complaint filed by the stewards said a search of Avila's barn uncovered “medication bottles with blank veterinarian prescription labels attached or no prescription labels at all.”
Stewards have yet to conduct a hearing for either Berrio or Avila. “There still is an active investigation in the Berrio matter, so a hearing date hasn't been set,” said Mike Marten, a spokesman for the CHRB. “Avila has asked for a hearing officer. No date has been set for his hearing.”
Daily Racing Form quoted Avila in early April as saying Masochistic is “a difficult horse to ride and that the intention (in the March 15 race) was for Berrio to save his mount to the stretch before asking for an effort.”
Masochistic may have been the worst-kept secret in racing on May 3. Set at 4-1 on the morning line, he was bet down immediately, finally drifting up to 2-1 and paying $6.20 to win. Maybe it was the fast workouts at Santa Anita following his debut (1:10 4/5 and 1:11 4/5 for six furlongs), although he worked in 1:11 1/5 before that March 15 race and was a fat 8-1.
It's curious to some why Avila would go to the expense of sending a California-bred all the way to Kentucky to compete against open maidens for a purse of $53,777 (winner's share $30,540) when contests like the March 15 race at Santa Anita paid $33,600 to the winner (plus a $17,500 Cal-bred bonus) and the competition in California was likely easier. Avila makes no bones about the fact that he is a betting man. He once said he cashed a $110,000 wager in Brazil, picking four consecutive exactas without handicapping, after having a dream.
Was the March 15 maiden race at Santa Anita a set-up for this Derby Day contest or just a “tightener” for a horse that was making his first career start? We'll leave it up to the CHRB stewards to decide.
I do know that sometimes you have to be a masochist to play this game.
Note: The original version of this story misstated the Churchill Downs maiden purse as being higher than the California purse.)
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