MANNY AZPURUA GOING STRONG AT 85

Published By: 
Bob Fortus
Published: 
May 12, 2014

Manny Azpurua laughed Monday at the suggestion that a young trainer won the Kentucky Derby this year.

California Chrome made Art Sherman, 77, the oldest trainer to win the Derby. He's eight years younger than Azpurua, who is taking aim at his first Preakness – and California Chrome – with Social Inclusion.

"We're going to try, see if we can beat that, because 85 is not easy to break,'' Azpurua said as he was waiting for Social Inclusion to step on to the track for a workout Monday morning at Pimlico. "We'll see what happens. The horse is doing great. Now we'll see how he can do. I hope a good race out of him, because he's a really, really good horse.''

As Sherman showed, and as D. Wayne Lukas showed last year when winning the Preakness at age 77 with Oxbow, racing doesn't set age limits for success at the highest level. Horsemanship and a fast enough horse are all that a trainer needs.

Hall of Famer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons is the oldest trainer to win the Preakness. He was two months from his 83rd birthday when he won with Bold Ruler in 1957.

Experience counts for plenty in a horseman, and Azpurua brings more than 60 years of it to his first Preakness. In a career than began in his native Venezuela before he moved to Florida in the last 1970s, he has won more than 4,400 races.

"I've been riding for him since February, and he's a tremendous trainer,'' said jockey Luis Contreras, who will ride Social Inclusion on Saturday and took a flight from Toronto to ride in the workout. "And he's still in good shape. Age doesn't matter right now.

"He's got a lot of experience. Even me, as a jockey, I just learn a lot from him. ... I don't know how to explain this, but to see Manny working in the mornings is inspiring.  ... He builds confidence in you. He always tells me things about the racetrack, and I just try to pick it up little by little.''

Owner Ron Sanchez, whose horses run in the colors of his Rontos Racing Stable (named after the horse-like animal in Star Wars) said he has teamed with Azpurua since 2012.

"I'm very happy, because we are like the father and the son,'' said Sanchez, 43. "I'm learning a lot from him. We have a lot of success with cheap horses, like Wildcat Lily.''

Sanchez said he bought the filly Wildcat Lily, who has earned more than $427,065, for $20,000. She won the Grade III Azalea last year and placed in two Grade I races – the Test and Prioress. 

"We make a decision together, but if I pick a horse to claim, and he doesn't like it, I pass. He's an 85-year-old guy. He wakes up every single day, drives 35 minutes from his home to the track (Gulfstream Park), stays till noon. I'm proud of him. ...

"This sport, experience means a lot. Experience and patience, that's what I think. That's why I never rush my horses. For Manny, I love old-school trainers. That's why I love Art Sherman. He's a wonderful guy. I was very happy because he won the Derby.''

Marcelo Castro, Contreras' agent, said that he and Azpurua have been friends for about 35 years. Castro was a trainer when they met at Gulfstream Park.

"I have a lot of respect,'' Castro said. "One of the best around.

"He knows what he's got, and he always has. And this (horse) isn't the only one that he's had. He's had a few over the years, good horses. He always comes up winning. He's kept the touch.''

For Contreras, 28, whose circuit is Gulfstream Park and Woodbine, Social Inclusion is a special talent. "I started breezing this horse before they know he can all these things,'' Contreras said. "I breeze him three or four times, and he always showed so much talent. He always does everything really easy. I never feel that power. This is the first time I feel this kind of feeling, and it's amazing.''

"I've been riding for 10 years. I was riding in Mexico. Then I was riding in California and New Mexico ... and this is a great feeling. The first time I jump on the horse and I breeze him, I told Manny right away. I wasn't riding anything for him when I breezed this horse the first time. I just tell him just to give me a chance to keep riding him.''

Social Inclusion hasn't raced since finishing third in the Wood Memorial in his stakes debut. He lacked sufficient points to make the Kentucky Derby field, and he was scratched from the Sir Bear Stakes at Gulfstream on Derby Day because of a bruised foot.

Before the workout Monday, Sanchez said the bruise was minor and no longer is an issue. In the workout, Social Inclusion made the point himself. He cruised through a half mile in 47 seconds, galloping out five furlongs in 59.60 and six furlongs in 1:13.60. He was reaching out strongly and smoothly.

"He's getting better and better every day,'' Azpurua said before the workout. "I don't know how far he can go. What I expect, he's a wonderful horse. He can't improve much more than he's doing now.''

That's straight from a voice of experience.

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