By Martha Claussen
Sunday is Valentine's Day, and for millions of couples, the evening will include dinner with champagne. But for jockey Cesar De Alba, the celebrating will be delayed until after his date with the extraordinary Moonist in the $139,700 Los Alamitos Winter Championship (G1) at the Southern California track.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, De Alba moved with his familyto the United States in 1989. He had a brief run on Thoroughbreds in 2001, but transitioned to Quarter Horses in 2007
Prior to his success with Moonist, De Alba, 34, had piloted several top runners to wins in some of the most prestigious races in California. He won the Los Alamitos Invitational Championship (G1) with Strength In Numbers; the Governor’s Cup Derby (RG2) with Scoop Of Sunshine; the Vessels Maturity (G1) with Far Niente and the Go Man Go Handicap (G1) with Bon Accord.
Riding at Los Alamitos is extremely competitive and De Albais grateful to several horsemen for giving him opportunities, especially Blane Schvaneveldt champion trainer Paul Jones.
But there is no doubt that the career changer for De Alba was Ron Hartley’s Moonist.
The gelded son of Separatist made nine starts as a juvenile with other riders before DeAlba got his chance on December 15, 2013.
"When I first started riding him, I watched his previous races on video," explained De Alba. "A few things stood out, so I just decided to leave him alone. He stood in the gates like a pony and left like a rocket!"
A bond was formed and De Alba guided Moonist through a very successful 3-year-old campaign, winning four derbies in 2014. Since their first victory in 2013, DeAlba has piloted the four-time champion to 17 wins.
On December 12, 2015, Moonist had a highly publicized firstmeeting with S-Quarter K LLC's Heza Dasha Fire in the $600,000 Champion of Champions. Heza Dasha Fire ended his spectacular year with a win, powering past Moonist by a margin of 1 1/4 lengths.
Just 12 days later, they met again, this time in trials for the Winter Championship. At odds of 4-1, Moonist evened the score, blazing tovictory in the 400 yard trial in :19.506.
"After the Champion of Champions, everyone expected us to get beat," said De Alba. "I knew he had to break really sharp or we would be running for second. He broke perfectly and I got after him left-handed. He was amazing and it felt great!"
De Alba credits trainer John Cooper for keeping Moonist sound and happy between races.
"John never gallops Moonist in between races,"said De Alba. "He just gets ponied around the track and kicks, bucks and plays."
On Sunday night, Moonist and Heza Dasha Fire will square off in the final of the Winter Championship.
Of course, De Alba would love to make it two in a row, butwin or lose, he has two very special "valentines" in his corner: hiswife, Becky and their 15-month-old son, Kevin.
"He's doing great and growing so fast," DeAlba said of his son. "He loves horses, and enjoys trips to the ranches and being at Los Al during the races."
De Alba's father was a jockey, as is his uncle Eddie Garcia,the all-time winningest rider at Los Alamitos.
Is another generation of Quarter Horse jockey in the making?
"No way," stated De Alba. "We have told him he has to be a doctor when he grows up!"