Ray Mamone has been a Thoroughbred owner for 41 years, and he has never had a horse in a Grade 1 race. That will change on Nov. 4 when Imperial Hint, riding a streak of four consecutive stakes wins, will step into the starting gate at Del Mar as one of the favorites for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
“It’s very special — I’ve known Mr. Mamone for many years, since before I went out on my own as a trainer, and I know how much he loves racing and how much he has supported me,” Carvajal said. “I’m confident because the horse gives you confidence. It also comes with a lot of stress. We still have more than a month to get the horse through his training and get him to California and then get him to the starting gate.
“He is the only chance we have. I don’t have three or four or five horses to replace him, like some trainers might have. You have to treat him like a crystal glass, but at the same time you have to get him ready.”
Imperial Hint has been a welcome boost for Mamone, who has struggled to enjoy horse racing since the death of his wife, Bernadine, in 2012. The Mamones were fixtures at Monmouth Park for many years and were both passionate about the racing stable. Ray Mamone named many of his horses with a nod to his wife —Bernie’s Gold, Leave It to Bern, Royal Bern and, posthumously, I Love You Honey.
Mamone, 84, attended Imperial Hint’s most recent win, a near track record in the Donald LeVine Memorial at Parx on Sept. 4, but he said he still feels his wife’s absence when he is at the racetrack.
“I have not been to that many of his races,” Mamone said. “I want to go, but then I miss her because she was involved with the horses with me and loved it so much. We did everything together. I do think I’m going to try go to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Mamone lives in Somerville, N.J., where he established a successful auto body shop that his son carries on today. He joked that he keeps close tabs on Carvajal about an hour away at Parx, which is in Bensalem, Pa., just outside Philadelphia.
“I’m on top of him,” he said with a laugh. “I did train for about six months at one time many years ago when I had a lot more horses, but I couldn’t keep it up along with the body shop. It was just too much.”
Most of Mamone’s stable has been made up of homebreds. Imperial Hint was a private purchase as 2-year-old, but in a way he was a homebred, too. Mamone bred and raced Imperial Hint’s dam, Royal Hint, and retained her as a broodmare for a few years at Shade Tree Thoroughbreds in Reddick, Fla. When she failed to get in foal two years in a row, Mamone decided to give her to Shade Tree owner Bert Pilcher Jr., who wanted to keep breeding her. In 2013, she produced Imperial Hint, and Carvajal noticed the colt as a 2-year-old when he was at Shade Tree to look at one of Mamone’s young horses.
“He was a really small horse, but the way he moved, he looked like he was floating over the track,” Carvajal said. “Coming back from the track, I could see that he had a good head on his shoulders. I suggested to Mr. Mamone that he should make an offer to buy the horse, and thankfully he was able to get him.”
On the other hand, Mamone has spurned all offers for Imperial Hint since he began to emerge with a debut win at Tampa Bay Downs in February 2016 and followed with a stakes win there by 6 ¾ lengths.
The colt really got into a groove last winter, starting with a six-length allowance victory at Parx. Four more stakes triumphs have followed, including the Grade 3 General George Stakes at Laurel Park in February and a dominant score this summer in the Grade 3 Smile Sprint Stakes at Gulfstream Park by 4 ¾ lengths.
He would have competed in the $2-million, Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen in March, but he got sick after the long trip to Meydan and eventually developed pneumonia, which forced him to not only scratch from the race but also stay in Dubai an extra few weeks before he was well enough to travel back home. Carvajal said the colt’s recovery advanced rapidly as soon as he arrived back at Parx.
“I had to take him back to the track within three days because he was feeling so good and felt so fresh,” Carvajal said. “He can be an easy horse to train but you have to have an exercise rider with very good hands. When he comes on the track, he means business. His rider, Pedro Castillo, gets along with the horse very well. It’s like they become one, and that makes a huge difference, because a 250-pound rider with muscles like Arnold Schwarzenegger is not going to be able to stop an out-of-control horse.”
Mamone said he flinched when he saw the opening half-mile time of :43.81 last time out in the Donald LeVine Memorial, with Imperial Hint and leading jockey Javier Castellano out front on the lead.
“For him to sustain that pace, I said, ‘That quarter-mile time can’t be right. That’s impossible,’ ” Mamone said. “But he did, and coming to the wire, Castellano was just sitting on him and he almost broke the track record.
“He keeps blowing us away. I am still dreaming, I guess.”
Carvajal, 45, is a licensed pilot and came very close to leaving horse racing to become a flying instructor more than a decade ago when he was still an assistant to one of Monmouth's top trainers, Bob Durso. He decided to continue on with Durso and went out on his own in 2006 when Durso retired. In recent years, his stable roster has mostly been in the single digits.
“Every trainer with five, eight, 10 horses, we are looking every day for a horse like Imperial Hint,” Carvajal said. “This is what keeps you going, hoping for something like this to happen.”