Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
There is no telling how high is high for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. He just keeps climbing.
To look back is to recall that he came from his native Barbados to South Florida with two horses in 2011. He was winning his share of races in the early years, but he did not have any connections and he was not making any traction with major owners.
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Slowly but surely, things began to change. He earned his first Grade 1 victory when Math Wizard, who Joseph claimed for $25,000, achieved a stunning upset in the 2019 Pennsylvania Derby at 31-1. He showed how far he has come when he sent out 58 winners at last year’s Gulfstream Park Championship Meet, including Curlin Florida Derby Presented by Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms at Xalapa victor White Abarrio, to topple perennial leader Todd Pletcher.
Now, his Florida operation is bustling with activity as he oversees approximately 150 horses for 60-70 clients. They are stabled at Gulfstream Park, Palm Meadows Training Center, and Tampa Bay Downs. In the spring and summer, he will have strings in Kentucky and New York.
He is scheduled to saddle 16 horses on Pegasus World Cup day Jan. 28 at Gulfstream. He looks to have three solid shots in a full field of 12 in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes Presented by Baccarat in White Abarrio; 2022 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets third-place finisher Skippylongstocking; and O’Connor, a Group 1 winner in Chile.
“We have a good hand. We have three good horses. They all have different styles,” said Joseph, 36. “We want them to run the best races of their career, hopefully.”
White Abarrio (10-1) will break from post 4 for jockey Tyler Gaffalione. He was a disappointment when he ran 16th in the 2022 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve but finished last season by running a solid third in the Dec. 3 Cigar Mile Handicap Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct. Undoubtedly, he is a horse for the course with a perfect 4-for-4 record at Gulfstream Park.
“White Abarrio likes the track. He’s coming off his best race numbers wise in the Cigar Mile. All of those are good signs,” Joseph said. “He’s had good spacing from that race to this. He’s training phenomenal. I think he’s sitting on the best race of his life. Everything you want to see in a horse going into a race, he’s showing us that.”
Skippylongstocking is rated as the third choice (5-1) on the morning line behind Cyberknife (5-2) and Proxy (9-2). He and his rider, Jose Ortiz, drew post 7. He appears to be in excellent form after winning the Harlan’s Holiday Stakes, the local Pegasus prep, by two lengths.
“He’s a horse that had a hard campaign last year. The more you threw at him, the better he got,” Joseph said. “We freshened him up with the hope that he would run well in the Harlan’s Holiday and go to the Pegasus. He ran very well in the Harlan’s Holiday and he filled out visually. It’s a much different class horse he’s running against now, so he has to improve again.”
The Pegasus should go a long way toward determining how 6-year-old O’Connor fits into U.S. racing. He relished distance and was a Group 1 winner in his native Chile. He dominated a Gulfstream allowance race by six lengths last October in his first start for Joseph, leading to great optimism entering the Harlan’s Holiday. He came in fourth – with an explanation. One of his glue-on shoes had become partially unglued, leaving him to run in a shoe that was half on and half off.
O’Connor drew farthest outside. Hall of Famer Javier Castellano will be aboard. “I know he has the ability. He’s going to need the right kind of pace,” Joseph said. “I think he is a legitimate contender.”
A Pegasus victory would be huge as the young conditioner continues to build his stable with an eye toward making it a perennial power. He won at a 21 percent clip and ranked 12th nationally with 174 wins (from 823 starters). He ranked 11th and bested his total of the year before with $10,147,409 in earnings.
His success has come with fairly modest stock. He yearns for owners with the spending power to invest in yearlings with regal pedigrees. “Hopefully, more opportunities will come that we get even better pedigrees,” he said. “The better horses you get, the better trainer you become.”
Added the hard-driving Joseph: “I don’t think we’re where we need to be. Every year, I feel we are two or three years from our true potential. That’s the goal, to just keep getting better and better.”