When trainer Luis Carvajal Jr. went to Shady Tree Farm in Ocala, Fla., nearly four years ago to check the progress of a 2-year-old filly for owner Raymond Mamone, his report led to the inexpensive acquisition of what proved to be a top TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint contender.
Carvajal advised that the filly was undersized and would benefit from more time at the farm. He had seen a 2-year-old colt that intrigued him, though.
That colt also was on the small side, but the trainer loved the way he moved. He thought a deal might be arranged rather easily because the juvenile was from a mare, Royal Hint, that Mamone had previously owned.
Sure enough, an agreement was struck and Imperial Hint joined Carvajal’s small operation, which consists primarily of claiming and allowance horses. The newcomer was expected to fit right in.
When Imperial Hint breezed for the first time as a juvenile for Carvajal, the trainer instructed the exercise rider to give the youngster an easy three-furlong work intended to stretch the Florida-bred’s legs and nothing more.
He watched what unfolded in disbelief.
Imperial Hint drilled three furlongs in a little more than 35 seconds and galloped out five furlongs in one minute flat even as the rider strained to keep him to a more moderate pace.
Carvajal would never forget that morning. “I said, ‘Wow, we’ve got something special,’” he recalled.
The native of Santiago, Chile, had been waiting for this kind of horse, one with a world of possibilities, while understanding that such a prospect never comes along for most trainers. The same held true for Mamone, an owner and breeder since 1976.
Imperial Hint did, indeed, blossom into something special. He has won 12 of 18 starts while earning more than $1.4 million in behalf of Mamone, 86. He looms as a keen contender when the Sprint is contested on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs after being a runner-up to returning defending champion Roy H last year at Del Mar.
Mamone said the exhilarating experience has left him “numb.”
“A horse owner like me, 42 years in the game, it’s very rare a person like me gets a horse like that,” he said.
Carvajal, 46, also cannot believe his good fortune. “I’ve had a few stakes horses, but nothing like Imperial Hint,” he said. “I sure wish I could get more like him, but they are very hard to come by for a small operation like me.”
Carvajal added, “I appreciate what this horse has done for me. I’ve met a lot of new people. I have new clients. The publicity this horse has given me, you can’t ask for anything more. It’s a dream come true for a trainer like myself.”
Carvajal opened his stable in 2007. He oversees approximately 20 horses, with divisions at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., and Parx Racing, in Bensalem, Pa.
Imperial Hint provided his trainer and owner with their first Grade 1 victories, both coming in his last two starts. He was much the best when he dominated the Alfred G. Vanderbilt by 3 ¾ lengths on July 28 at Saratoga Race Course; he was a geared-down 1 ¼-length winner in the Vosburgh on Sept. 29 at Belmont Park in his Breeders’ Cup prep.
Javier Castellano, aboard for the last eight starts, described the son of Imperialism as a “special horse.” He praised the veteran for his versatility.
“You can do whatever you think,” Castellano said. “You can go to the lead or come off the pace a little bit.”
What Imperial Hint lacks in stature, he makes up in heart.
“People who know the horse say he looks like a fullback,” Carvajal said. “He’s not tall, but he has a good back end. That’s where the power comes from. I can tell he’s grown to put more muscle in the shoulder and neck and back end. He looks like a very powerful horse.”
Imperial Hint boasts four victories in five starts this year. Of some concern may be that he threw his only clunker in a Grade 2 race on May 5 on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs. He set the pace only to weaken badly toward the end of the seven-furlong contest won by expected Sprint starter Limousine Liberal.
Although Imperial Hint has shown he can succeed on a wet surface, Carvajal said his horse did not care for the going that afternoon as record rain pelted the Kentucky Derby. He feels sure the six-furlong Sprint will be a much better fit and hopes for better conditions.
Mamone could not be more hopeful. “He’s much more mature,” he said. “I don’t want to brag too much, but I think he can win that race.”
It ain’t bragging if Imperial Hint can back it up.