Amazing Journey for D’Angelo, Breeders’ Cup Hopeful Jesus’ Team

Jesus’ Team exercising in the morning at Pimlico Race Course before his third-place finish in the Preakness Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When trainer Jose D’Angelo is asked why he left his native Venezuela to come to the United States, he might well have spoken for countless immigrants when he responded, “If you have dreams, you must follow your dreams.”

D’Angelo, 30, was off to an auspicious start after he began his own training operation in his homeland eight years ago. He became the youngest conditioner to win the prestigious Clasico Simon Bolivar when aptly-named Dreaming of Gold delivered the gold in 2014.

D’Angelo ventured to Gulfstream Park to saddle Venezuelan-bred Forze Mau as part of the Clasico del Caribe Internacional at the end of 2017. He came away with a second-place effort and the conviction that, if he wanted to compete in what he describes as the “big leagues,” he had to make South Florida his new home.

The move was anything but easy. The quality of his stock when he arrived?

“I didn’t have nothing,” he replied. “Zero.”

It helped that Francisco, his father, long a successful trainer in Venezuela, had set up shop ahead of him. D’Angelo was soon acquiring horses through claiming races. It did not take long for him to demonstrate his horsemanship. He needed only three starts to earn his first victory when Beach Dreaming reached the winner’s circle on June 27, 2019 at Gulfstream Park.

Now, even D’Angelo cannot believe where his dream is taking him. The “big leagues” do not get any bigger than the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, and he could not be more excited as he readies former claimer turned third-place Preakness Stakes finisher Jesus’ Team to compete in the $1 million Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile on Nov. 7 at Keeneland Race Course.

“I can’t believe my eyes to be in Lexington to prepare my horse for that amazing race,” D’Angelo said.

He apologized several times during a phone interview as he struggled to understand and answer certain questions. Many responses involved the word “amazing” as he described his horse, his surroundings, and how far he has come in such a short time.

Jesus’ Team, owned by Grupo Seven C Stable, was transferred to D’Angelo’s barn after he used the fifth start of his career to win a March 18 maiden claiming race at Gulfstream Park. He had been made available for $32,000.

The bay son of Tapiture appeared to be just another horse until the decision was made to breeze him from the gate. “He was 100% different,” D’Angelo said.

He sensed that the 3-year-old needed to build confidence. He took a big chance by running him in a race for $25,000 claiming horses. Jesus’ Team showed that the impressive gate workout was no fluke, romping by 6 ¾ lengths. Best of all, the hefty gamble paid off when he was not claimed.

The connections went from thinking they had something good to being sure that they did when the youngster placed second to graded-stakes winner Sole Volante in a June 10 optional-claiming allowance race at Gulfstream Park. He missed by a mere three-quarters of a length.

They were encouraged enough to take a shot in the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes July 18 at Monmouth Park. Jesus’ Team raced greenly but again showed enough talent to finish fourth in the 1 1/8-mile contest. He continued to progress when he came in second to Pneumatic in the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth in mid-August, prompting discussion as to whether the colt should make the quick turnaround to compete in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on the first Saturday in September.

As tempting as that was, D’Angelo made sure his mind overruled his heart. Jesus’ Team had sometimes raced erratically while appearing uncomfortable when he was caught inside of horses. He felt sure that the sophomore would benefit from blinkers.

“We didn’t have a Derby horse because the horse was very green. The Kentucky Derby is not the race to make changes,” he said. “You run in the Derby if you have any chance to win.”

The start of the 2020 Preakness Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Jesus’ Team ran on the first Saturday in September, all right, but against a short field in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga. The result was encouraging beyond the third-place outcome.

“When I put the blinkers, the horse changed completely,” D’Angelo said. “He’ll run inside, outside, in front or behind.”

Now, he was ready to go for the gusto. D’Angelo urged the owners to pay $25,000 to supplement Jesus’ Team to the $1 million Preakness. The Kentucky-bred justified their faith in him by rallying to be third while Swiss Skydiver prevailed in a dramatic stretch duel with Kentucky Derby winner Authentic.

D’Angelo is ecstatic with the way his horse bounced out of the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. “He’s very happy. He’s dancing. He’s amazing,” he said.

The young trainer still cannot believe the company he kept before the Preakness was run at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

“I saw trainers like [Bob] Baffert, [Todd] Pletcher, [Steve] Asmussen, and [Ken] McPeek. I’m living my dream. To be with these people, it’s amazing.”

There is that word again, spoken as an amazing journey may be only beginning.

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