Wednesday, December 1, 2021

American-born black coach made history at Breeders Cup

George Leonard III is not your typical horse trainer at the Breeders’ Cup.

He takes the hose and washes his horse, cleans up his stall, spreads fresh bedding while the rest of his team, his wife, walks his two-year-old filly around the barn.

Breeders’ Cup is all about big skaters, expensive horses and big breeding rights, but from time to time magical circumstances arise from which films are made. A Lifetime Trainer for Cheap Applicants buys a horse for $ 5,500, wins its first race at an 18-1 bet, and gets a paid ride to the biggest leg of the race.

And Leonard is more than one of a kind. He is the first black trainer of American descent to enter a Breeders’ Cup horse in 37 years of competition.

“I’m not an innovator,” said 55-year-old Leonard. “I would rather be a role model … and be known more for my hard work than for my nationality. It shows that anyone who works hard can get lucky and be successful. ”

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The Breeders’ Cup, which will be held for the second time in Del Mar, will begin on Friday with five races exclusively for two year olds. There will be nine more races for the older horses on Saturday.

Friday’s runners include California Angel, who will compete in the $ 1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf. She starts at 14th post in races for 14 horses.

The filly is owned by Chris Walsh, who has a small factory in Indiana that breeds nine horses, four of which are running. When California Angel won Jessamine in Keeneland and qualified for the Breeders’ Cup, it was also her first betting win.

Leonard’s stable in Indiana Grand has only 19 horses, so the combination of a little trainer and a small owner seemed almost perfect.

“George had one of our homebrews last year and he was injured and we decided to fire him,” Walsh said. “We hated that George and I didn’t have a horse, so we talked about the sale in Ocala, Florida. We asked if he would mind buying us something.

The California Angel, trained by George Leonard III, will be running Friday at the $ 1 million Fillies Turf juvenile field.

(KC Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We gave him a budget of about $ 20,000. He called us on the last day of the sale and said he found the perfect mare and she was California chrome. He told us how much he paid for it ($ 5,500). I asked if she had all four legs. “

California Chrome had a similar humble start, but won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and was named Horse of the Year twice, winning nearly $ 15 million.

“[California Angel] just looked very good, ”Leonard said. “When you have that kind of money, you need to look for a great deal.”

Soon, Leonard realized that he had more than a deal.

“Her first paired work was amazing, although at first I thought the horses I worked with her were not that good,” Leonard said. “By the third job, I knew I had something special.”

“I’m not an innovator. I would rather be a role model … and be known more for my hard work than for my nationality. “

Coach George Leonard

California Angel won her first race at the Kentucky Downs. Her second race was in mud at Churchill Downs and she finished third.

“After she broke the girl, we started talking about running. [in the Jessamine]Leonard said. “But it was a distant reality that could turn out to be true.”

This happened dramatically as California Angel finished eighth at the top of the segment and won by a large margin.

The next day, Walsh received an offer of $ 500,000 for a mare.

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“We politely declined,” Walsh said. “It’s not about the money. If that were the case, we would definitely sell it. It’s about an opportunity for us and for George. How could I sell a horse from under the man who found it. If we sold it, it would for sure transferred to a new coach. “

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The fact that Leonard became the first black coach in nearly four decades of the Breeders’ Cup is shocking given that the sport was created by black jockeys and coaches. In 1875, in the first derby in Kentucky, 13 out of 15 jockeys were black. In the first 28 heats, the black jockeys won 15 times.

“Black men in this industry were prominent at the highest level … but that ended abruptly in the 1890s after 30 years of emancipation,” said Catherine Mooney, professor of history at Florida State University, who wrote Racehorse People: How Slavery and freedom were created at the racetrack… “

Not coincidentally, that all changed in 1896, when the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson and authorized the state’s segregation laws.

“The racetrack is a very small world and you can immediately see the dramatic changes,” said Mooney. “The whites said,” Freedom is yes, but equality is not. ” … This can be seen from the magazines of that time. The names began to disappear, the pictures disappeared. It was a quick change. Racing has become the sporting face of segregation. “

Leonard was born in racing as his father was also a coach, but on smaller tracks in Louisiana such as the Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs. Leonard calls himself a Creole, which is generally considered to be a mix of French, Black, and Native American.

While Leonards has managed to keep the racing business alive, it doesn’t always work out.

Coach George Leonard III smiles for the camera in Del Mar on Tuesday, November 2, 2021.

“I am overwhelmed by all of this and the fact that I am here,” said trainer George Leonard III. “I have no ego.”

(KC Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“It was almost like coaching trees,” Mooney said. “Older men taught young people. And you could move up in the business. But if you turn off the supply downstairs, you will have no people and the pipeline will be cut off. Most of the time, it is no longer something that black children know that this is a job you can do. ”

Leonard’s sudden notoriety came on the heels of two other significant moves. In May, Kendrick Carmusch became the first black jockey to compete in the Kentucky Derby since 2013. And last year, Greg Harbuth became the first black owner to compete in the Kentucky Derby on horseback in 13 years.

“The fact that these stories come together in one of two times of the year when the attention of non-racing fans could indicate a change,” Mooney said. “It may seem to people that this is not one guy, but a whole group of people who are not recognized, and that can make a big difference.”

Oscar Gonzalez, vice chairman of the California Horse Racing Council, agrees this could be a turning point.

“It’s not about the money, if we sold it for sure. It’s about an opportunity for us and for George.

California Angel owner Chris Walsh

“What the industry needs most, besides an expanded fan base, is stories that inspire both outside and inside the business,” Gonzalez said. “I look at a guy like George who is a great rider and his story inspires people. It can bring fans, investment and general support. However, horse racing has a job ahead of it to be on par with other industries to attract diverse leaders. ”

As for Leonard, he underestimates the idea that he might be on the ground floor of a change.

“I am overwhelmed by all this and being here,” he said. “I have no ego.”

He may have no choice but to get it if California Angel wins Friday.

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