Horses worthy of competing in the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic typically have bloodlines that point to greatness, and the prices they fetched at yearling or 2-year-old sales reflected that. But the enduring beauty of the game is that top horses with unpromising pedigrees that showed little early in their careers can develop into top performers that surpass what anyone could have dreamed.
John Fanelli, 49, executive manager at a Nissan dealership in Turnersville, N.J., is living such a dream. He claimed Math Wizard for $25,000 on Jan. 31 at Gulfstream Park, never imagining that the 3-year-old that had gone winless through his first four starts before breaking his maiden would emerge as the 31-1 upset winner of the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 21 at Parx Racing.
Math Wizard will compete against racing’s elite in the season-culminating Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. Fanelli is sharing his insights with followers of America’s Best Racing. Here is the second installment of a two-part diary written with Tom Pedulla:
Sometimes, things just feel as though they were meant to be.
When I claimed Math Wizard at Gulfstream Park, the money had to be wired that morning because I did not have enough in my horseman’s account to cover the $25,000 claim. When there was a delay, the trainer, Saffie Joseph Jr., told me another of his owners wanted the horse and maybe he should just claim the horse for him. But I stayed firm. I really wanted the horse. And the money arrived 30 minutes or so before the race.
Then, we came very close to not running in the Pennsylvania Derby. Saffie and I were deciding between the Pennsylvania Derby and the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby. The Oklahoma Derby, a Grade 3 race, had the advantage of being eight days later and Saffie thought Math Wizard would welcome the extra time. The horse was laying down in his stall and not always cleaning up his feed.
I really wanted to make the Pennsylvania Derby. There was a $600,000 difference in purse money, it was a Grade 1 compared to a Grade 3 and I did not think the competition would be that much tougher. And there was the sentiment involved of wanting to run in a huge race at my home track, the same track where my father, Daniel, introduced me to the sport so many years ago, instead of Remington Park.
Saffie was really reluctant to enter the Pennsylvania Derby. He is not about to run a horse that is not 100% and neither am I.
I reminded him that we’ve both seen horses turn around very quickly, so I asked him to enter so we could see the field and decide from there.
Everything fell our way after that. Math Wizard turned around in a day and began giving Saffie every sign that he was ready to run again. The competition became much weaker when Maximum Security was scratched. Then we got a perfect ride from Irad Ortiz Jr. to catch Mr. Money by a neck at 31-1.
No one is giving us much of a chance in the Classic, either. Our horse does not have top bloodlines. His overall record does not match some of the others. I think Saffie is on his way to becoming a nationally prominent trainer, but he just won his first Grade 1 with the Pennsylvania Derby and he is not there yet. We drew the rail and most people don’t want to be that far inside.
Well, I like being the underdog. The horse doesn’t know his odds. Math Wizard had plenty of time to recover from the Pennsylvania Derby and he is training well. Every work has been really good. We have Ricardo Santana Jr., riding, and I had success with him earlier in his career at Delaware. I feel very good about having him, and he is ecstatic to have the mount.
As for the rail, that works for us because we do not have to have the lead. We had the rail when he ran second in the Ohio Derby and again in the Pennsylvania Derby. Ricardo should be able to work out a ground-saving trip from there, and I am very confident we will get the strong pace we need. I think there are five or six horses that want the lead or need to be close.
It would be a dream to win the Classic, and I already feel as though I am living a dream. Everyone would look at our former claimer in an entirely different way, and this would solidify him as a stallion prospect.
I would be thrilled if he finished one, two, or three. I am not about to predict that we will win, but I will say we did not ship Math Wizard from Florida to California to finish out of the money. Put him in your trifectas.