It was a fine weekend for septuagenarian trainers based at Los Alamitos Race Course and their derby favorites. On Saturday, 77-year-old Art Sherman’s trainee, California Chrome, established himself as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby with a scintillating victory in the Santa Anita Derby. On Sunday, it was John Cooper’s turn, as the 76-year-old trainer was enjoying a great winner’s circle moment after even money favorite Moonist’s posted a wire-to-wire victory in the $202,100 El Primero Del Ano Derby.
Approximately three hours after winning the Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome was back in his stall at Los Alamitos to begin his training preparations here for the May 3 Kentucky Derby under Sherman’s watchful eye. About a half-hour after Moonist had crossed the wire first in the El Primero, Cooper was saying goodbye to Moonist’s owner, fellow 76-year-old owner Ron Hartley, and the rest of the festive group that joined him in the winner’s circle.
“I have to get back to barn to check out Moonist,” said Cooper, a mainstay at Los Alamitos for the past 45 years. “I like to look at my horses right away. (Moonist) looked like he was walking just fine after the race, but I’ll go to the receiving barn to check him out.”
When asked if he would be in the barn on Monday to check on his pupil, Cooper didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ll be here Monday morning. If there’s anything that we need to fix, I want to get on it right away.”
Cooper’s work ethic has made him one of the top trainers of all-time at Los Alamitos. Now a three-time winner of the El Primero Del Ano Derby – he also won this race with Aladuino in 1983 and with champion Chingaderos in 1986 – Cooper has saddled the fourth most Quarter Horse winners ever here with 1,313. Cooper has gotten to know Sherman over the past few months since the trainer of California Chrome moved his stable permanently to Orange County following the expansion of the track to a one-mile oval.
“When you are on your home ground and you know your horse is ready, you have to run your horse,” said Cooper referring to a conversation he had with Sherman prior to the Santa Anita Derby. “If you know the horse is ready, you go for the money.”
Cooper and Hartley have had the same approach with the hard-working Moonist, a gelding by the multiple champion Separatist, who Cooper trained to 16 victories and earnings of $889,044. Bred by Vessels Stallion Farm LLC, Moonist has won seven of 14 starts and this is his fifth stakes appearance. He was second in the Governor’s Cup Futurity and fourth in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Winter Derby. He also won both the $30,000 Golden State Juvenile Invitational and the $35,000 Los Alamitos Juvenile Invitational. Foaled by champion Your First Moon, Moonist covered the 400 yards in the El Primero in :19.534. Ridden by Cesar De Alba, he crossed the wire a half-length ahead of Ed Allred’s 17-1 longshot Fire Cliff.
“He still wants to run a little green, but now he is breaking straight,” Cooper said. “He likes to hook with other horses, at least that’s what I think. This one is in the bank and we’ll see what’s next for him.”
“The Governor’s Cup Derby trials is next,” added Hartley, who like Cooper has a been fixture at California racetracks for more than 40 years.
“I came to Los Alamitos in the 1960s when Ed Burke was here,” Hartley said. “I was the racing secretary at Bay Meadows and a steward here in the 1980s. I was the clerk of scales at the fairs and that’s when I first met Art Sherman. He was riding horses back then and I remember him telling me, “I’ll ride anything with hair on it, just put me on them. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
A commercial property investor in Southern California, Hartley’s involvement in racing and raising horses is as strong as ever.
“I still like to get up in the morning and go to work. What else would I do? And I just love this game and these horses. I lived in Canada when I was a kid and I remember going to the old Woodbine with my dad every day. I would also go to tracks like Hamilton Racetrack when I was a kid. I grew up around horses. Now I have a baby that I really like and we have Forgotten Dynasty, who I’m hoping will run in the Matron Stakes on California Breeders Champions Night.”
“When I saw that Moonist broke cleanly and had a head on the field at the gap I knew that it was over,” said Hartley, who was enjoying his richest stakes win ever. “This horse just wants to run. I’m happy with my horses being the underdog, but Moonist was the favorite tonight. I was getting a little nervous because of that, but the horse did it.”
Moonist was introduced to the saddle at Firth Ranch in Hemet, California, the home of stallions Hard Hitting, Mistysgoldentouch and Quindici Man. John Firth credits Hartley for helping him establish the ranch.
“I wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t for Ron Hartley,” Firth said. “We started with about four babies, four mares, etc. Now we have 10 babies, 10 mares, Hard Hitting, etc. We broke about 35 head there including Moonist.”
Moonist earned $84,882 for this win and now has $207,804 in his career and has established himself as a definite sophomore to watch in 2014.
“He can run 400, he can run 440,” jockey Cesar De Alba added. “He’s just getting better and better. My thing was just to get him clean out of the gate and get him going for the first 50 yards. Once I felt he was all alone I just hand rode him to the end. This horse can run.”
Ridden by Carlos Huerta for trainer Scott Willoughby, the Walk Thru Fire gelding Fire Cliff was quick out of the gate and finished nicely to earn $34,357 for second place in his stakes racing debut. His mother, Girl Secrets, won the La Primera Del Ano Derby in 1998.
World Champion Racing Stables, LLC’s Dont Walk Peacefully earned $24,252 for running third for trainer Danny Montes and jockey Santiago Mendez. This was the Walk Thru Fire gelding’s second start of the year after only racing once as a 2-year-old. Smithy, Stel Just Me, Inpursuit, Yacht Clubber, Fire Shakin, Dimes And Nicks, and Dashin Dreams completed the field.