-By Dick Jerardi
None of the 11 horses that left the Gulfstream Park starting gate at 5:12 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2018 had won a race. All of them were eligible to be claimed for $16,000.
The winner, a horse that was making his first start, would go on to finish first in the 2019 Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Haskell Invitational. The horse that finished second was 0-for-9 after that race, is now 1-for-14 and most recently finished third in a $10,000 claiming race at Gulfstream for horses that have never won two races. The horse that finished third won the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on Sept. 21.
Horse racing’s allure is its possibilities. You just never know.
The first three horses across the wire that day in Hallandale, Florida were Maximum Security, Guerreron and Math Wizard.
Only Math Wizard was claimed. Seventeen days later, Math Wizard was entered in another maiden $16,000 claimer. The colt won by 6 3/4 lengths and was claimed again. Guerreron was a distant second. Twenty-five days later, Math Wizard was entered in an open $25,000 claimer. He won by 18 1/2 lengths and was claimed again, this time by John Fanelli, the general manager of Turnersville (N.J.) Nissan, a horse owner who also is a major player in the stable of Joe Taylor, the leading trainer at Parx in 2019.
Math Wizard stayed in South Florida with another of Fanelli’s trainers, Saffie Joseph, Jr. Fanelli sold off percentages of the horse, but stayed as majority owner as Math Wizard raced in stakes races in New York, Arkansas, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia. The colt ran second once (Ohio Derby), third once (Indiana Derby) and fourth twice (Wood Memorial, Oaklawn Park Invitational). Math Wizard’s only poor performance came when he finished sixth in the Aug. 3 West Virginia Derby, the colt’s third race in six weeks.
Fanelli was considering the Pa. Derby as entry time neared on Sept. 16. Joseph was more thinking Oklahoma Derby. Fanelli said it was only $2,000 to enter, so why not? Barely after entries closed, Maximum Security, the horse that won that maiden claimer by 9 3/4 lengths and was clearly the country’s most accomplished three-year-old, developed a serious colon problem at his Monmouth Park base. The colt was rushed to a New Jersey equine clinic, was treated and is now recovering. It was announced the next day that Maximum Security would be scratched.
The Pa. Derby was down to six, one of them a maiden who clearly had no chance. Math Wizard was going to finish no worse than fifth, which would be worth $40,000 and push the colt’s earnings to $300,073. Math Wizard was flown north two days before the race and hit the Parx track for the first time the day before the race.
Edgard Zayas, who had ridden Math Wizard twice, was named to ride in the Pa. Derby. But, due to the original uncertainty about whether the colt would run, he chose to stay in South Florida and ride the Gulfstream Park card. He went 2-for-4, winning a $16,000 claimer with a $24,000 purse and a $10,000 claimer with a $21,000 purse.
Irad Ortiz, Jr, the 2018 Eclipse Award winner as the nation’s leading jockey, was at Parx to ride Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress in the Cotillion. He also rode a few of the undercard stakes and was on a hot first-time starter for Todd Pletcher that would win the day’s last race. Neither Irad nor younger brother Jose, who rode Cotillion favorite Guarana and had ridden Math Wizard in both his Gulfstream wins in January, had a mount in the Pa. Derby.
Irad ended up on Math Wizard for the Pennsylvania Derby. The colt was 31-1 as the horses came out of the gate.
Well, all but 6-5 favorite Improbable came out of the gate. That colt, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, the exacta that had won the last two Pa. Derbies, completely missed the break and was immediately several lengths behind the field. Instead of being in front where Baffert and Smith wanted him to be, Improbable was last.
Instead of a comfortable front-running trip, Improbable would have to pass them all. Instead of stalking from second, Mr. Money, who had won four straight stakes with a close-to-pace running style, was instead looking uncomfortable on the lead. The fractions were slow, with Preakness winner War of Will just behind Mr. Money and Parx-based Spun to Run just behind War of Will. Improbable gradually moved into a good striking position.
A half-mile into the race, Math Wizard was last, just behind the maiden Shanghai Superfly. But the pace was so slow that Math Wizard was not that far from first.
And when the pace really picked up during the third and fourth quarter miles of the race, Math Wizard really picked it up too, coming off the rail and making a powerful outside move on the far turn.
With 100 yards to go, it really looked like any of five horses could win. At the wire, it was Math Wizard just in front of Mr. Money, the top five separated by just 1 1/2 lengths. It was mayhem in the owner’s boxes as the Math Wizard team rooted their horse and jockey home.
That $25,000 claim had just taken down a $600,000 first prize, a Grade I and more than likely earned a trip to run in the Nov. 2 $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita.
Horse racing can’t be scripted. It just happens, you marvel and you smile.
“I’ve got to retire now,” Joseph said. The trainer is 32.
He won’t be retiring. Fanelli will keep running horses at Parx with Taylor. Math Wizard will run some more.
And anybody who was there at Parx on Sept. 21, 2019 will never forget what they saw on a day when nearly $9 million was bet on the 13 races (seven stakes), with purses of $3.24 million. They will remember the brilliant ride by English native Sophie Doyle on the Larry Jones-trained Street Band to win the Cotillion and the California sprinters, King Jack and Landeskog flying home 1-2 in the Gallant Bob.
The lasting memory will be Math Wizard—an owner who believed in his horse, a trainer who got him right for his first Grade I, a jockey who gave the colt a chance and that moment when anything seemed possible.