Storybook Journey to Kentucky Oaks for Connections of Chocolate Martini

The Life
Kentucky Oaks contender Chocolate Martini enjoys peppermints at Churchill Downs. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Years ago, a little girl used to go to Arlington Park weekly with her grandfather. He was a “horse guy” who loved the horses and wasn’t a big better. Her favorite horse was Mission Dance, who was a hard-scrabble horse who ran in 40 races from 1989 to 1992 with lifetime earnings of $81,470. She was featured in the local newspaper holding a “real horseshoe replete with nails to bring her good luck for the Arlington Million.” Now Amanda DaBruzzo is walking around Churchill Downs replete with a million-dollar smile because she is part of Double Doors Racing. Their filly Chocolate Martini is racing in the Grade 1 Longines Kentucky Oaks.

Amanda DaBruzzo at Arlington Park as a child. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Horses are part of life for many Kentuckians. David Walker is from Western Kentucky and remembers his grandfather’s farm, where they grew up riding bareback on ponies. “It was fun. I remember the summers where the ponies would lie down in the ponds and we would dive off of them.” 

Double Doors Racing was named as tribute to the double doors logo of Arthur Andersen. They have had modest success with their previous horses. Amanda DaBruzzo’s husband, Ron, is a partner with Walker in this horse racing adventure, along with Julie Sledge; and Brian and Lori Pinto. Amanda smiled as she explained that her husband, who is business partners with Walker, gave her a share in a racehorse as a wedding present. 

Double Doors Racing had been looking for a horse to purchase and race. Trainer Tom Amoss contacted them in January and mentioned a filly he was considering. The filly is Chocolate Martini, by Broken Vow, who was born and raised at Millennium Farms in Lexington, Ky.  She sold for $65,000 at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale. She finished last and second-to-last in her first two starts and then won her next race. They claimed her for $25,000 on Feb. 3. 

Walker and DaBruzzo talk in tandem as they describe Chocolate Martini. She is very sweet and laid back. She keeps her head focused. “She doesn’t get fussed.” Amoss always jokes about her because she is so quiet that he comes down the shedrow to check on her to make sure she is OK. She uses her ears a lot and she is very smart. She takes the time to assess what is going on around her. 

Amoss admits that he was attracted to her at first by her speed figures. “In January of a horses 3-year-old year and there is a lot of development that can occur. I thought maybe she was in the beginning of her development cycle, and it turns out we were fortunate to get her at the right time.” Amoss has worked with this ownership group before. “They are a pleasure to work with. Very much hands off and also knowledgeable about racing. Those two things make a trainer’s job very easy.”

DaBruzzo giving Chocolate Martini a kiss – she has such a soft eye! (Julie June Stewart photo)

Amoss agrees that Chocolate Martini is extremely laid back. But pay attention! He has an insight that few might pick up from her soft eyes and quiet behavior. “You can’t read her off of her personality because she’s very quiet and is so laid back in the stall but on the racetrack she is a real warrior. She is a big filly. My impression changed the first day I took her to the track. She covered so much ground with her stride that I immediately said we are going to start racing her and allowing her to utilize that stride without pushing on her. I think that’s going to benefit for her. I wish they all acted like that.  Demeanor in horse racing is everything. If I could take her demeanor and give them to my other horses I would do it in a heartbeat.”

When Chocolate Martini ran in the Fair Grounds Oaks, Walker didn’t realize that she had won until Ron DaBruzzo tackled him. “It was pretty spectacular.” Amanda (in tears) said, “We just won the Fair Grounds Oaks!”  Walker looked back at her and said, “And we are going to the Kentucky Oaks?” It was a startling development and this was the first graded stakes win for Double Doors Racing. In the winner’s circle, Bill Mudd, president and COO of Churchill Downs, presented the trophy and said, “You just qualified for the Kentucky Oaks with 100 points and we’d love to see you the first Friday of May. “

When one realizes that they have just been invited to compete in a million-dollar race, it is stunning! Surreal! Sensational! Smashing! The heart skips a beat as the brain tries to process the incredibly good news staring at you. You are going to Churchill Downs! You are going to make the paddock walk. Then the brain starts getting practical. Arrangements need to be made. With a beautiful sense of prophecy, Walker’s brother Chuck had given him a pink tie with horse shoes on it last Christmas

When asked to describe the experience of participating in the Kentucky Oaks, DaBruzzo gave a large sigh and stopped to collect her thoughts. She said, “It’s really hard to put into words. It’s got to be a top life moment, almost like a wedding day. It’s really just special to be here, especially coming from somebody with humble beginnings who grew up as a fan of horse racing. I was just a little girl at the track who loved horses.”   

Julie Sledge lures Chocolate Martini with peppermints. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Co-owner Brian Pinto from Dallas stayed in the background and was encouraged to step forward and share his feelings. His dark sunglasses covered his eyes but his voice gave away to the emotion pent up inside him. “This is really fun for me and Lori to do this with the people we care about. That’s the most fun.” He paused as he thought of someone who wasn’t there with him. “I lost my dad, who was a horseman, about a year ago. He would have loved this.”

The joy and love of this experience is written on Julie Sledge’s face. She brightens the backside with her infectious smile and jubilant laugh, which leads her to happy short sentences. “You have to understand. For the Pintos and us. This is our second horse EVER. It’s just been … we are sure are taking it all in because it’s a dream. Saw Churchill Downs for the first time this morning at 5:45 and it was dark. As soon as the sun came up, saw the spires over there from the backside. Because it’s just – it’s just – I don’t think you can describe it in words.” Her excitement certainly captures the incredible, amazing journey they have been on with this sweet, loving filly.

Amoss agreed that this is a dream maker for Double Doors Racing and added, “It’s a dream maker for me, too. To claim a horse for $25,000 in January and all of a suddenly be in the Kentucky Oaks is not something I saw coming. And I am certainly trying to enjoy it as much as possible.”

And in the spirit of sharing and giving, the owners have agreed to donate five percent of any earnings from the filly’s run in the Kentucky Oaks to the Retired Racehorse Project. Chocolate Martini will be wearing a Retired Racehorse medallion on her bridle to represent the Cinderella dream that a claiming horse can indeed make it to the ball.   

Jen Roytz, executive director of the Retired Racehorse Project, said, “We are tremendously grateful and incredibly humbled that the team behind Chocolate Martini has chosen the Retired Racehorse Project as the beneficiary of their generosity. The Retired Racehorse Project mission is to increase the demand for retired racehorses as riding and competition mounts. We’re excited that Chocolate Martini will be wearing the medallion on her bridle as well as she takes us all along for the ride in the Kentucky Oaks.”

Mission Dance, 31, aka Danny.

So today the little girl who went to the track with her grandfather, the young boy who used to dive off his pony into a warm, summer pond, and the son of a horseman will raise their heads in anticipation as they cheer on their storybook filly as she runs in the 144th running of the Kentucky Oaks. They will have the ones who shared their love of horses throughout their lives with them in their hearts and they will be surrounded with friends and family.

“Our love of horse racing stems from our love for the horses,” DaBruzzo said. “We recognize and appreciate that the real stars in horse racing are these tremendous athletes. Double Doors Racing is committed to ensuring that all horses, not just the champions, have a bright future after their time on the track. We hope that our commitment to the Retired Racehorse Project will further their mission and this cause.”

Amazingly enough, in the peace and quiet at a farm in Missouri, 31-year-old Mission Dance (now known as Danny) lives a tranquil life far away from the “Call to the Post.” It’s lovely that this off-track Thoroughbred who inspired a little girl at Arlington to follow her dreams had a soft landing after his racing career. By raising awareness for the Retired Racehorse Project, Double Doors racing is opening doors and hearts to future careers for claimers and retired racehorses. It’s a perfect storybook ending!  

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