Jim Walker’s Zoomin For Spuds upset reigning AQHA World Champion Heza Dasha Fire by a head to win the 43rd running of the Grade 1, $600,000 Champion of Champions and in the process the 3-year-old gelding sent an encouraging message to the entire Quarter Horseracing industry in Idaho.
“Keep going, that’s what this win says,” said Monty Arrossa, who saddled Zoomin ForSpuds to his meet’s best sixth stakes win at Los Alamitos. “This is a testament that the small breeders, the 40-year breeders can do it. If we can band together up there and keep things alive, we can produce good horses that can compete here. I hope we don’t give up (in Idaho).”
Quarter Horse racing has seen better days in Idaho, but on this Southern California evening, there was no bigger or brighter star in Quarter Horse racing than a chestnut gelding born in the city of Bellevue in Blaine County in the central part of Idaho.
“I pulled him right out of his mom,” said Walker, an octogenarian who until a few years ago operated a sand and gravel company. “I knew he was something specia lright after he was born. At four and a half months he jumped over a 4 rail fence. It was pretty impossible for a horse that is just a baby to do. He never even touched the thing. I knew then that I had an athlete. He didn’t even touch the fence, he cleared it at 4 ½ months hold. I had to put him in a smaller corral because he kept coming out. Luckily two ladies came by and jumped out oftheir car in the middle of the highway. He’s quite a horse.”
Good enough to make every one of his six wins at Los Alamitos a stakes win. After winning the $126,000 Wild West Futurity at Los Alamitos, the 3-year-old homebred by Zoomin For Bux began the year by winning a pair of overnight stakes races, the $15,000 Costa Mesa Handicap and the $15,000 Fullerton Handicap, both at 350 yards. Zoomin For Spuds went to Sandy Downs from there, where he would finish third in his trial to the Bitterroot Derby and then third again in the$38,000 derby final.
“The Bitterroot, some of the best horses have come from the Northwest and have run in the Bitterroot,” Arrossa added. “It’s very tough up there. It’s hard to winthat race. You know, it’s our All American Futurity, our Super Derby, it’s our big race up there. There is good horsemen in the Northwest and it’s tough to outrun them.”
Back to the friendly confines of Los Alamitos Race Course, Zoomin For Spuds returned to doing what he does best, winning stakes races in Orange County. He quickly picked up the Blane Schvaneveldt Handicap, a race named in honor of Idaho’s greatest horseman, and then the Wrangler Stakes on Bank of America Racing Challenge Night.
“Running in the Wrangler Stakes was like a trial to the Z. Wayne Griffin DirectorsTrials,” Arrossa added. “We decided to go for it from there. He ran another great race on Z. Wayne night and qualified to the Champion of Champions. We had about a month off and (Zoomin For Spuds) runs well when he’s fresh.”
The Wrangler was stakes win number four and the Z. Wayne was number five. And then came the Champion of Champions on Saturday night with young pilot Jesus Rios Ayala aboard Zoomin For Spuds.
“He ran as a 2-year-old in the trials to the All American Futurity and that’s been it (at 440 yards). We felt he had been finishing strong, but that was a question for me, could he go 440? Cruz (Mendez) had rode him the last couple of times, but we knew that if we got to the Champion of Champions that Cruz would ride Heza Dasha Fire. Jesus Ayala is an up and comer and the thing I love about him is that he really gets horses away from the gate. My horse breaks well and I thought that if that kid can help my horse just a little bit away from the gate, maybe it will help us at the end. (Rios Ayala) has got a great work ethic. He’s here seven days a week. He’s a hard worker. I watch him in the morning and I said, ‘That’s the guy I want on him horse.’ ”
With Ayala in the irons, the 10-1 longshot Zoomin For Spuds broke nicely, but trailed the great Heza Dasha Fire by ¾ lengths at the start.
“I never doubted it (that he would win the Champion of Champions),” Walker said. “Everybody said, ‘Well, you’re bragging.’ I said, ‘I guess I am,’ because I just knew that he was special horse.’ They’re not born every day. I had some really nice horses, but he’s the greatest I’ve ever had.”
More than halfway into the quarter-mile race, Zoomin For Spuds trailed Heza Dasha Fire by a length, but it was still a horse race and there was a big stakes race to win.
“On Challenge Night he ran great out of the four hole,” Arrossa remembered.
“My horse had a really great break and he was running well out of the gate,” Ayala said. “Jose Flores’ horse, Heza Dasha Fire, was close and my horse was finishing a lot stronger. At the wire, I knew it. I felt I had won. I’m thrilled to win a race this prestigious and I feel a lot of pride. My horse ran great.”
Zoom, zoom, stakes win number six was in the book. With Ayala in the irons, Zoomin For Spuds had covered the 440-yards in a hand-time of :21.30. It was his sixth win in eight starts this year and eight victory in 18 career starts. All eight of his wins have come at Los Alamitos, but he’s 0 for 5 in Idaho. He also earned $300,000 for winning the Champion of Champions to take his career bankroll to $415,543.
“Los Alamitos Race Course is the greatest place to race a Quarter Horse, but it’s also the toughest place to race,” Arrossa said. “We’ve had to work hard, but when we’ve gotten beat our motto has been that we need to work that much harder. It paid off tonight. A friend of mine called me up and said ‘what do you think (about the Champion of Champions)? Are you going to run second?’ I said, ‘No, we don’t saddle up to run second, we’re going to win the thing,’ ”Arrossa continued. “But quite honestly I thought that if we could lite the board with these horses that I would be happy. I’m so thrilled.
“I’ll be here for another week,” Arrossa said. “I’d like to go home (in Idaho) for Christmas. I really need to thank my crew in Idaho. They’re second to none.They broke this horse as a 2-year-old. They get all my horses ready there and ship them down. Romero Fregoso is my main assistance there. The guy is phenomenal. He started this horse. I owe a lot of credit to him. This horse, a lot of being good in the gate and gate speed is because of the good job he did breaking him. Those guys are home right now breaking 25 babies and it’s cold and it’s snowing and a lot of wind and it’s a lot of elements, but they’re toughing it out. Those guys that have helped me, they’re my backbone.”
Arrossa will surely be back right after the holidays, as there’ll soon be another stakes race to try to win with Zoomin For Spuds.
“He’s in the Winter Championship,” he said. “When we decided to come into this race I called Jim and said, ‘Let’s go to the Winter Championship,’ and he just said,‘Let’s go.’ That’s just Jim.”
Thetrials to the Los Alamitos Winter Championship will be held on January 22.
And what about those great breeders in the state of Idaho? Breeders like Walker,who is 85 years young.
“I breed all my own mares,” he said. “I’m down to two mares, but the mother of Zoomin For Spuds, A Perfect Cocktail, she’s a 100% producer. His sire, ZoominFor Bux, I really liked his confirmation. What I really liked is that he had a 117 speed index. I would see pictures of him and he was just so well balanced.I thought he was perfect. I know nothing is perfect, but he’s as perfect as anyhorse I had ever seen.”
Zoomin For Bux competed in seven stakes races during a strong career that included a win in the 2006 Retama Futurity and runner-up finish in that year’s LonghornFuturity.
S-QuarterK LLC’s Heza Dasha Fire was looking to become only the fourth back-to-backwinner of the Champion of Champions and first since SLM Big Daddy in 1997-98.The other two are Refrigerator (1992-94) and Dash For Cash (1976-77). Tailor Fit is the only other horse with two Champion of Champions wins, but he accomplished the feat by winning the 1999 and 2001 runnings. Ridden by Cruz Mendez for trainer Jose Flores, Heza Dasha Fire earned $96,000 for his runner-up effort to take his career earnings to $1,918,737. He’s also eligible to run in the Los Alamitos Winter Championship trials.
“(HezaDasha Fire) did not break as fast as he usually does,” Mendez said. “He was a little nervous in the starting gate. My horse took the early lead, but Zoomin For Spuds caught me. He got me in the last few jumps. He just didn’t finish as fast as he usually does. He still ran a good race.”
Reliance Ranches’ Big Lew, the winner of the Los Alamitos Super Derby, ran a strong race to finish third. The Utah-bred colt by Corona Cartel earned $60,000 for the win to take his career earnings to $585,189. Trainer Mike Robbins, a three-time winner of the Champion of Champions, has saddled nine horses in this race and finished in the top three with six of those starters. Jimmy Dean Brooks piloted Big Lew.
Mike Teel’s AJs High, the winner of the Bank of America Challenge Championship, finished fourth and was followed across the wire by Heat Warning, Sass Me Blue,Militarist, He Looks Hot, Forget It and Rite Regal.
JockeyJesus Rios Ayala is now only two wins away from Cesar De Alba for the lead in the Quarter Horse jockey standings at Los Alamitos. De Alba has won 98 andAyala is at 96 wins.
“I’ve had a good year,” Ayala said. “You have to have luck. It’s a competition and Cesar De Alba is a great jockey. He has some great horses to ride and I do too. It’s a great competition and you need a lot of luck to win the title.”
Los Alamitos Race Course held a special ceremony prior to the fifth race on thecard featuring the board members of the Sam Thompson Memorial Foundation forDisabled Jockeys. The board members unveiled a bronze sculpture of the beloved Sam Thompson aboard the champion and million dollar winner Corona Kool, which won the Los Alamitos Two Milion Futurity.
The bronze was created by the nationally recognized Jim Stuckenberg. Mr.Stuckenberg was a favorite of President Ronald Regan and his artwork is now part of the Ronald Regan library. Also a plaque of the donors to Sam’s bronzewas unveiled. Jockeys, trainers, racing officials and horsemen were part of the ceremony. The bronze will be prominently displayed at the track. Cathy Monji, the track President, represented Los Alamitos Race Course during the special ceremony.