When Second of July springs from the starting gate in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint, know that his trainer, Phil Gleaves, is someone to loudly root for. When it comes to selflessness, when it comes to putting fatherhood above all else, he is second to none.
Gleaves had established himself on the rugged New York circuit when life happened. He had learned invaluable lessons as an assistant to Hall of Famer Woody Stephens from 1977 to 1985. He opened his own stable with four horses in the winter of 1985-’86. He immediately had a big horse when Wise Times swept the Haskell Invitational, Travers Stakes, and Super Derby in 1986.
Gleaves had talent and ambition and a world of potential. He also then had a wife, Meredith Jiminez, and, in 1999, a son, Schuyler. The marriage ended, but amicably. Jiminez ultimately parted for California with Gleaves left to juggle managing a barn full of horses with the ultra-demanding role of being a single parent.
As Schuyler neared school age, Gleaves approached a trainer who had been in a similar situation to ask how his grown children had handled changing schools whenever he changed circuits.
“No problem,” he was told. “The kids loved it.”
Gleaves decided to ask the man’s son.
“Me and my sister hated it,” the son said. “Going from school to school, we lost our friends. We had to make new friends and lost them.”
Gleaves’ heart told him what he had to do.
“I pretty much gave up my whole business,” he said, adding, “It was not a difficult decision, and I do not regret it one minute.”
He relocated to South Florida to ensure that Schuyler would have the stability of remaining in the same school system. While Gleaves worked at the barn each morning, his house cleaner saw Schuyler off to school. The trainer often missed races because he picked up his son every day after school without fail.
“I had an assistant who saddled horses in the afternoon when I couldn’t be there, which was very often,” Gleaves said.
Owners could rest assured that their horses were well cared for. They also understood that nothing was more important to Gleaves than Schuyler’s education and development.
“My focus was on him,” the trainer said.
Life took another turn when Gleaves married Amy Dunham in 2011 and again when Schuyler enrolled in the University of Florida, where he is now a senior majoring in computer engineering. Gleaves returned to New York in 2018.
“It’s been very gratifying for me to come back to New York as now a new face because 20 years have gone by and to start fresh with new clientele,” said Gleaves, 63. “It’s been gratifying to get back to this level.
“I always wanted to get back to the big time.”
Gleaves works as farm trainer for prominent owner Peter Vegso in Ocala in the winter while maintaining a New York operation that he limits to eight horses the rest of the year. He makes the most of those eight. Through 28 starts, he had five wins, four runner-up finishes, and nine third-place efforts for earnings of $379,267.
Second of July is bred and owned by Bryan Hilliard. He is named after the birth date of Hilliard’s son, Reed. He is taking everyone by surprise.
“He was a pretty plain, nondescript horse. I broke him last winter,” Gleaves said. “He didn’t show anything special, but he didn’t show he was slow, either.”
There was no buzz surrounding the chestnut son of Jack Milton before he won his Sept. 20 debut at Belmont Park at 68.25-1. He overcame 15-1 odds to win the Grade 3 Futurity Stakes Oct. 11 at six furlongs at Belmont with Dylan Davis again aboard to gain fees-paid entry into the Juvenile Turf Sprint.
The second start was particularly encouraging because the youngster settled nicely in sixth after being much harder to manage and sitting just off the lead in his debut.
“He was very professional and I hope he will be the third time out,” Davis said. “He was a lot better with the gate and the pony and the whole race scenario.”
Gleaves will saddle his fourth Breeders’ Cup starter following Happy Jazz Band (fourth, Juvenile, 1990), Devil on Ice (10th, Juvenile, 1991), and Mambo Meister (fifth, Dirt Mile, 2009).
Gleaves expects Second of July to again face long odds but said, “He’s training super. I couldn’t ask for anything better than the way he’s training right now. The race is going to be super tough, as it should be, as it’s supposed to be.
“But I feel like this is the gravy, this is the ice cream. ‘Win and In,’ everything is paid for, we take a shot at a million dollars without any huge expense going in.”
If Second of July can produce yet another surprise, it would surely provide a great moment for Gleaves. But not his greatest moment.
That came when Schuyler, after serving an internship last summer with Microsoft, was offered a lucrative position by that tech giant upon his graduation from Florida.
“When he called me with that,” said a choked-up Gleaves, “that was the best time of my life.”