Del Mar Odyssey: Hello, Goodbye

by | 07.31.2018 | 9:42pm
Exercise rider Humberto "Beto" Gomez (left) and groom Eduardo Luna lead Justify onto the Del Mar racetrack, accompanied by assistant trainer Jim Barnes and hot walker Alfonzo "Pollo" Silva

The second of seven weeks of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club's summer meeting is in the books and here's a quick review of some of the activities from the perspective of someone who's been coming to the seaside oval for 40 years.

Everybody Loves A Parade
Undefeated Triple Crown winner Justify made his final public appearance at a racetrack last Saturday, July 28, when the Bob Baffert-trained colt by Scat Daddy was shown off to an admiring crowd of 17,668 at Del Mar. The big chestnut was paraded around the paddock several times, then walked through the tunnel onto the Del Mar racetrack that he'd never raced or trained on.

Groom Eduardo Luna and exercise rider Humberto “Beto” Gomez, accompanied by assistant trainer Jim Barnes and hot walker Alfonzo “Pollo” Silva, walked the big chestnut up to the end of the grandstand, then back down the stretch and around the clubhouse turn back to his stall – all to a chorus of applause from the fans,

Racing's 13th Triple Crown winner and the only one to retire undefeated showed no signs of lameness from the swelling in an ankle that caused Baffert and the colt's owners – WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and SF Racing – to pull him out of training in early July and ultimately send Justify back to Kentucky, where he will become the most valuable horse ever to enter stud. Published reports have pegged Justify's value at upwards of $75 million, with Ireland's Coolmore principals expected to sign a deal to stand him at their Ashford Stud near Versailles, Ky. – and then likely shuttle him to Australia for Southern Hemisphere duty. If that transaction is consummated, it certainly is unusual to see a major stallion farm like WinStar loosen its grip on one of the most coveted prospects poised to enter the breeding shed in recent times. But money talks.

Justify wasn't done posing for pictures when the parade ended Saturday afternoon. The following morning at Baffert's barn, a throng of visitors showed up, hoping to get one last glimpse of the Triple Crown hero,

Baffert accommodated each and every one of them. Justify was led out of his stall and out into the sunlight, posing (mostly) patiently for pictures with his Hall of Fame trainer at the end of the shank. One group after another hustled out to stand to Justify and Baffert's left side, handing their phones to friends or strangers to snap pictures of them together.

“Who's next?” Baffert would say, until every last request was satisfied, finally asking, “Is that it?”

The weekend was a basket of mixed emotions for the 65-year-old Baffert, who admitted that “I could cry right now” when Justify walked into a Del Mar paddock surrounded by picture-taking fans.

Ninety minutes earlier, Baffert was all smiles, celebrating with owner-breeder Jane Lyon of Summer Wind Farm in Kentucky after the debut victory of Chasing Yesterday, a 2-year-old half sister to Baffert-trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

The docile chestnut – by Tapit out of Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman – was all business on the racetrack under Mike Smith, breaking alertly from the outside post seven, pressing the pace into the stretch, then taking control quickly, opening up 4 1/4 lengths at the wire, completing 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:04.44 at 3-10 odds.

She did one better than her older sibling, who lost his debut at Del Mar in 2014 and then won eight straight races, beginning with a maiden-breaking win in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and ending with a post-Triple Crown triumph in the G1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. American Pharoah, whose only other loss came in the G1 Travers, concluded his career beating older horses in the G1 Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Lyon bought Littleprincessemma for $2.1 million at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale when American Pharoah had already won two G1 races but was forced to scratch from the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile because of a foot bruise. Lyon sells most of the horses bred at Summer Wind, but opted to keep this one.

Based on Chasing Yesterday's debut, this is a filly with a very bright future.

On Sunday, Baffert debuted Roadster, a 2-year-old gray/roan colt by Quality Road who broke from the rail post in a six-furlong sprint, then won with ridiculous ease under Smith, who barely moved a muscle in the final sixteenth. The 4 1/4-length victory was accomplished in 1:11.07.

It's a long ways from a Del Mar maiden win in July to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but Roadster – a $525,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase from the Stone Farm consignment of his breeder – gives big hopes and dreams to owners Peter Fluor and KC Weiner of Speedway Stable. Hopes and dreams are what drive many in this game.

Roadster and Chasing Yesterday also give Baffert something to say hello to every morning after saying goodbye to Justify.

Shave And A Haircut…And An Eclipse Award
Chris Aplin has operated the barber shop on the first floor of the Del Mar grandstand since 1986, but this year she's got a new addition to a room decorated with photographs she's taken of famous horses like Zenyatta and California Chrome. 

Sitting on a table across from one of two barber chairs is a 1977 Eclipse Award won by the late Hall of Fame trainer Laz Barrera  – whose many top runners were led by 1977 Triple Crown winner and two-time Horse of the Year Affirmed. How it ended up in Aplin's barber shop is one of those “only in racing” kind of stories.

Aplin worked for Barrera in Southern California after graduating from college with a degree in kinesiology at what is now known as Cal State East Bay near San Francisco. The job only lasted from 1979-'80, but Barrera's influence on Aplin was long-lasting

Barrera took the young woman under his wing and helped steer her in the right direction in an environment where it's often easy to find the wrong path. “He once told me, 'Be careful with the people you spend time with at the racetrack, because you will be judged by the company you keep,'” Aplin said.

Barrera died in 1991 after catching pneumonia A son, Larry, who assisted his father and trained on his own for a number of years, died in 2013. Aplin doesn't know what happened to all of Laz Barrera's many trophies, but she found out a few months ago that one of his four consecutive Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer from 1976-'79 was being auctioned off on eBay.

Chris Aplin with the Eclipse Award recognizing Laz Barrera as outstanding trainer of 1977

Former trainer Tom Bunn helped Aplin set up an eBay account and offered her advice on bidding. “He said to wait till the last minute,” she said. When the bidding was close to ending, however, Aplin found herself stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway. “I was just sitting there in traffic, so I tried to make a bid on my phone at the last minute, but it never got through,” she said. “I didn't get it, and I really beat myself up for a couple of weeks.”

When Aplin arrived at Del Mar for the summer meeting, Lori and Chuck Allen – horse owners from Texas she's known for more than 10 years – stopped by the barber shop with a box.

“I thought it was a pie or something,” she said.

Inside the box was the Barrera Eclipse Award.

Aplin has no idea how the Allens learned that she had tried to buy the trophy, but it turns out they were bidding against each other. It now sits proudly as a reminder to Aplin of her earliest days in the business working for a man she said represents the best the game has to offer.

Aplin gave her first racetrack haircut to Affirmed's exercise rider, Jose “Tuto” Ithier. “He got such a bad cut once that he looked like a peeled grape,” Aplin recalled. “I said, 'I can do better than that.'”

Before long, word traveled throughout the stable area that Aplin was just as good at cutting hair as she was at exercising feisty Thoroughbreds. After cutting hair in the backside for a few years while still exercising horses, Aplin decided to make haircutting her vocation and went to school to get a certificate.

Over the last 30-plus years, she's included famous jockeys, trainers and owners as customers, including Hall of Famers Bill Shoemaker and a formerly-hirsute Mike Smith. Her most difficult customer, she said, was another Hall of Famer, trainer Jack Van Berg.

“He hardly had any hair but was very specific about how long to cut the top and the sides,” Aplin said with a laugh.

If you're at Del Mar, stop in for a haircut, some great racing stories and a glimpse at a piece of history.

 

 

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