Dominick Imperio knew Thoroughbreds as well as anyone and better than most. He had trained them on the uber-competitive New York circuit before turning his attention to preparing young prospects in Florida.
He could see the elements falling into place for his son, Michael, who entered the industry as an owner in 2005. Dominick was convinced that Michael had aligned himself with the right people in bloodstock adviser Nick Sallusto and trainer Rudy Rodriguez. Both were passionate about their livelihoods, and Dominick viewed Sallusto’s Thorostock Training Center in Morriston, Fla., as an ideal setting for a young runner to grow and mature.
Dominick assured Michael that a special horse would come his way if he persevered. Michael kept that thought close to him after Dominick succumbed to cancer this past March at 78. Sure enough, his father was right.
Imperio is the majority owner of Bella Sofia, a contender in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Nov. 6 at Del Mar. The 3-year-old has swept four of her first five lifetime starts, with the victories coming by a combined 25 ½ lengths. She already has earned more than half a million dollars.
Dominick had no way of seeing that Michael, 58, would land the star he has been chasing for a mere $20,000 after years of significant investment. He also had no way of knowing that Bella Sofia might be described as, shall we say, a petulant diva.
That is perhaps the kindest, most diplomatic way, to describe a filly that drives handlers to distraction. Every day of training is vital, but Bella Sofia never got that message upon her arrival at Thorostock after she sold for such a modest sum as a 2-year-old at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. July Sale.
“Some days she just would absolutely refuse to train. Dig her feet in the ground, not want to go forward,” Sallusto said. “We never really forced her to do anything.”
He credits the patience of Jimmy Randolph, an assistant trainer at Thorostock. Randolph and his staff tried various approaches, searching for something that clicked. “We were going to let things be her idea,” Sallusto said.
She rejected much of what they attempted as very bad ideas.
“It took a while to get her confidence in us up,” Sallusto said. “We tried different routines and, finally, we got a routine she really liked, a rider that really got along with her and, from that point forward, every day was better.”
Nothing came easily.
“Any time she would do something we liked, we would give her a lot of positive reinforcement,” Sallusto said. “We made a lot of progress in very small increments.”
The mercurial dark bay daughter of Awesome Patriot did not come close to making the races as a truly terrible-acting 2-year-old. When she was at last ready for a timed workout, nothing was straightforward about that, either. Sallusto instructed the rider to go an easy two furlongs. She completed the drill in 23 and change, approximately three seconds faster than the desired time. When a similar scenario played out the second time, Sallusto went from finding something new to get upset about to finding something to be very excited about. He realized her cruising speed was extraordinarily high.
Bella Sofia and her handlers went through another difficult getting-to-know-you process when she arrived at Rodriguez’s barn in New York. She continued to be so enigmatic that Rodriguez, a former jockey, began galloping her himself as the Breeders’ Cup came into view.
“She wants to be the boss,” Rodriguez said. “Right now, I just try to be the passenger.”
Bella Sofia can become distracted and upset by the flight of a bird or a tree-climbing squirrel. “She doesn’t tolerate too much noise and she can hear everything,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to be 100% on top of her paying attention. She can do any stuff any minute.”
Her idiosyncrasies become more bearable because she can really run. After a winning debut on May 6 at three-quarters of a mile at her home base of Belmont Park, she suffered her lone defeat when she bobbled at the beginning of the Jersey Girl Stakes there a month later.
She rebounded to dominate a July 11 allowance race at Belmont by 6 ½ lengths and handled the step up to Grade 1 stakes company in the Aug. 7 Longines Test Stakes at Saratoga Race Course with remarkable ease, dispatching Souper Sensational by 4 ¼ lengths. Then, it was on to face older horses for the first time in the Sept. 26 Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont. Imperio and his partners – Sofia Soares, Vincent Scuderi, Parkland Thoroughbreds and newcomer Medallion Racing – already had decided that the $250,000 Gallant Bloom would determine whether they risked $100,000 to supplement her to the Breeders’ Cup. She punched her ticket with a 3 ½-length score under a mild hand ride from Luis Saez.
“She earned her way in,” Imperio said.
Bella Sofia will be confronted by blistering speed she has never seen before in Gamine, an overwhelming favorite to win the Filly and Mare Sprint. “When you’re at the Breeders’ Cup, in every race nothing comes easy. It’s the World Series. It’s the Super Bowl. This is where the cream is, the best of the best,” said Rodriguez, eager to embrace the challenge with his fussy filly.