Enjoying a 55-39 lead over runner-up Doug O’Neill, Phil D’Amato’s third Santa Anita training title is all but a formality with only four days remaining in the Winter/Spring meet that began the day after Christmas on Dec. 26.
The 45-year-old San Pedro native hopes to go out in a blaze of glory next Sunday by capturing Santa Anita’s traditional closing day stakes finale, the San Juan Capistrano (G3) for the third consecutive year, quite a feat in itself although it pales mightily in comparison to Charlie Whittingham’s incomparable record that will likely never be broken of 14 San Juan victories, including five straight years from 1983 through 1987.
The legendary “Bald Eagle” who died at 86 on April 21, 1999, won the San Juan consecutively beginning in 1983 with Erins Isle, (ridden by Laffit Pincay Jr.), 1984 with Load The Cannons (Pincay again), 1985 with Prince True (ridden by Chris McCarron), 1986 with Dahar (Alex Solis up), and 1987 with Rosedale (that man Pincay again).
D’Amato is in a position to have many more successful years with an ever-expanding clientele helping to fuel big meets such as the one he’s enjoyed this winter/spring. To that end, he has five horses nominated to the 83rd San Juan, first run in 1935, but he’s likely to enter only 2020 San Juan victor Red King and Rijeka.
Red King, remarkably still a full horse at age eight, was fifth in last year’s San Juan, one of 40 starts the son of English Channel has made in his lengthy career, winning eight with six seconds and eight thirds, good for earnings of $560,555 .
Rijeka, a six-year-old Irish-bred gelding, has a 6-5-3 record from 31 starts with earnings of $310,440.
Both horses worked “head and head” Sunday morning on the training track, going five furlongs in the identical time of 1:01.20.
“Red King is a hard-knocker who showed some good life last time (finishing second in an overnight race May 22, his first start in more than two months),” D’Amato said. “He was a game second and he loves this San Juan Capistrano distance, so he’s got all those things in his favor going into this race.
“Rjjeka acts like he’s a very kind horse that can run all day, so it should be a good spot for him to get into a nice rhythm and show what he can do at an extended marathon distance.”
D’Amato is not a one-man operation and readily lauds his supportive owners and diligent staff for the team’s success.
“I’ve been fortunate to be paired with some very good owners who constantly look for good horses to add to my stable, and even more important, to have an excellent staff preparing the horses to win these kinds of races,” he said.
Asked his thoughts on Whittingham’s staggering mark of 14 San Juan victories in a day when competition was much keener than today, D’Amato said: “What he did back in his era was pretty amazing. I know the San Juan was a lot saltier when he was winning it.
“That’s why he’s a Hall of Fame legend.”