Daniel Robles has expressive eyes but they are often tucked underneath the shadow of a baseball hat. The first thing you see is his smile. That is, unless he is surveying his surroundings as he safeguards the horses in his care. Then his smile shifts into a semblance of concern as he scans for potential issues. All this is done while radiating calmness to the Thoroughbred inches from his side.
He is a member of the Doug O’Neill team, the California-based barn which has won the Kentucky Derby twice with I’ll Have Another (2012) and Nyquist (2016). Robles is currently in Louisville, Ky., with their 2017 Derby contender Irap. It’s his first trip to Churchill Downs. Churchill Downs is a place that he has always wanted to visit, along with Keeneland, because “they look great on TV so why not be here?” His impression is that “it’s a great place and it’s very big.”
He grew up in Inglewood, Calif., in the shadow of Hollywood Park racetrack. One could say that horse racing is simply a member of his family. His grandfather was in the business at Agua Caliente. His father is a groom who worked at Hollywood Park and now works at Santa Anita for trainer Robertino Diodoro. He is proud of his family and says that horse racing “is a family thing. My brothers and uncles are also into the business and one brother is a pony rider.”
His first memory of horse was a Quarter Horse named La Cantina. He remembers that she was a good horse. He remembers hanging out with his dad at Del Mar racetrack. He has many wonderful memories. It was a great place for a kid to grow up. “It was great because I love horses. Horses are my passion. For me, it’s always been horses.” He learned to ride and used to go horseback riding in Mexico with his family. From grade school through high school, he was often found hanging out in the barns. “Ever since I was little, I wanted to do this. I wanted to work with the horses.” He says with a smile of accomplishment and with modesty that “this is where I am right now.”
He started as a hot walker at Hollywood Park working for Jamie Lloyd who is now an international trainer and bloodstock agent in Great Britain. Then he got the chance to groom for Paula Capestro. He was 17 years old when he groomed his first filly. She was very nice but he was nervous. He learned quickly that “Once you get used to them, you just lose being nervous.” He never had any doubt that his life was meant to be with horses. He likes taking care of them. “I just love them and I want to be with them all the time.” Robles started worked for Robertino Diodora’s barn when he was 19. He learned a lot from that barn and especially enjoyed being mentored by Diodoro’s assistant trainer Sean Williams. He had the opportunity to join the Doug O’Neill team four years ago.
He started again as a hot walker and then worked as an “extra groom.” After doing that, they gave him a chance and started giving him horses to groom. Among them have been U S Citizen, Ernest Shackleton, Royal Albert Hall and Pay the Fine.
I met Robles the day after the 2017 Santa Anita Derby. I was admiring Term of Art in his stall when O’Neill’s Operations Manager Sharla Rae Sanders introduced me to Robles and asked him to take Term of Art out into the sunlight so I could photograph him. I gasped when I saw how majestic and relaxed Term of Art is within Robles’ care. First he quietly followed him out of the barn and stood regally and calmly next to Robles. His eyes were clear and he alertly pulled his ears forward as if posing for the camera. We stood there chatting. Term of Art lowered his head into Robles’ arms, closed his eyes and allowed his groom to gently hold him. The horse was so relaxed that we stopped talking and just stood and watched. Just like one holds a loving cat or dog in their arms, Term of Art and Robles were simply in another world; one of love, trust and affection.
Now Robles is part of racing history. He is the groom of the O’Neill Kentucky Derby contender Irap. Robles laughs when he remembers the first time he met Irap as a two year old. “He was fat! He was chunky! I was working and I had an empty stall so they put him in there. I saw him and I love him because I love Tiznow. I felt great having the son of Tiznow and now I have two sons for Term of Art is also a Tiznow.”
Irap is a happy horse. “He is a great horse to handle. He’s not very grumpy. He is very professional. He lets you do whatever you want. Every time he is outside walking, he feels good. He feels a breeze and hops around.” It’s interesting that Irap doesn’t like peppermints or cookies. He simply loves carrots.
The first thing Robles does after arriving at the barn at 5:30 in the morning is to check on Irap. He makes sure that he is OK. He ties him up, stoops down and swiftly removes his leg wraps. He feels for heat or pressure. “I make sure he is good and look for extra bumps. Then I let him rest and help the other guys out.” He will brush Irap up. Sometimes Irap will try to bite him. “Once I get his attention, he is great. This is normal behavior. It’s just him. He wants to play around. I tack him up and ready him for the track. He loves going out.”
While Irap is on the track, Robles will clean out his stall. He makes sure that it is “extra puffy and comfortable. He prefers a puffy stall.” This is an interesting detail in Roble’s encyclopedia knowledge of his horses. “Once you have them as a 2-year-old, you get to know them every day. You know what he does. You know when he is not feeling good and when he is feeling great.”
Robles is blessed with the calmness in life of loving what he is doing and knowing he is where he wants to be. He is clear and level headed. He is personable and friendly; professional and a team player. Assistant Trainer Leandro Moro is delighted with Robles’ performance. “He’s a young kid and he is also a dreamer. We have been happy to have him in our barn. He is grooming two horses both by Tiznow and that makes him very happy.” Robles is married to another groom’s daughter and has a one year old daughter who loves horses. Moro said that it’s nice “that it’s a family thing. We are happy he’s here!”
I asked Robles what are his strengths coming into this job because he strikes me as a very level headed person. He easily outlined a program that could certainly be applied to any career: “First of all, knowing all the things you need to know about your job is pretty good.” He followed with sage advice that “you have to be in a good mood every day.” Finally “Be ready for anything and everything.” While this is short and simple, it is most definitely the path to success. It’s easy to see that Robles applies this to all that he does.
His entire family is proud of him. “No one in my family ever got to a big race like the Kentucky Derby.” They will be watching for him on TV. He will be part of racing history as he walks side by side with his Derby contender. Irap has grown up a lot since he was a chunky 2-year-old. Robles said that “once he broke his maiden, he was a different horse!” He hasn’t scoped out the other Derby horses because he is just into his horse. He is happy. “It’s great to be here. Everybody wants to be here. I got a chance so just enjoy the chance.”
I was curious how it felt to be working around the large Derby crowds. He smiled again. “It’s fun. It’s amazing! A lot of people just watching you do your work or watching on a website. It’s just another day.”
Robles is young enough to not realize how elusive and fleeting the Derby quest is. It’s not just another day. It’s one of the most historic days in racing that will be immortalized. Just like Tiznow’s races are part of our American history, the horses he grooms stand a chance of being famous. Irap will forever be remembered as one of the elite 3-year-olds that earned the right to run in the Kentucky Derby. He will never forget the excitement and pageantry of the walk over from the barns to the paddock on that first Saturday in May. He and his horse will be swallowed up by the crowds but he won’t see the people. His eyes will be on the path ahead of his horse making sure that his horse is safe the entire way.
I asked him what his goals are. He paused. He started to answer then stopped. And there it was. That wonderful smile that opens the door to his happiness. “I am already here! My main goal is to win the Derby.” Then he allowed his heart to dream as all young men should do. “And a Breeders’ Cup! And maybe a Triple Crown! You have to be positive and have a positive mind and it’s going to come true. I am proud to be part of Team O’Neill.”
There will be at least 150,000 people at Churchill Downs this Saturday. Millions of people will also be watching on various forms of media. They will be watching the majestic horses, the fashion and finery and all those fabulous hats as hundreds of people make the great walk from the barns to the paddock. I know that as they pass by, I will be watching the grooms. As each one passes, I will be saying in my mind “Well done. Well done!” And when Robles passes with Irap, I will respect his professionalism and not yell out his name. I will be cheering for the young man from California with a dream that he carries for his family, those he works for and for his horse. It will be one of the greatest walks of his entire life and his positive attitude got him there. One can only look forward to what comes next in his life!