The Kentucky Derby, known to some fans as “the most exciting two minutes in sports,” is an exclusive race for the fastest 3-year-old thoroughbred horses in the business. More than 30,000 thoroughbreds are born every year. Only the 20 highest earners manage to make it to the starting gate in Kentucky.
Two graduates of Limoneira’s Windfall Farms have a once-in-a-lifetime chance this year to go to Louisville, Ky., to compete in one of the most exciting events in horse racing, the first leg of the United States Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing.
Just a few months ago, the name Twice the Appeal was little-known to horse racing enthusiasts. He lost his first six career races but has recently been on a winning streak, earning $449,920 in 10 starts. At the Sunland Derby in New Mexico on March 27, the colt had a 25-1 chance of winning. In a major upset, he pulled through mid-stretch to win the race, along with the $800,000 prize, bumping him onto the top 10 graded earnings list and securing his place on the Kentucky Derby lineup for this Saturday.
Although he is considered a long shot for the Derby, Calvin Borel, the talented jockey who will be racing Twice the Appeal, has won three out of the last four Derbies. Some are pegging him at a 50-1 chance for winning.
Twice the Appeal was bred in Kentucky. After he was purchased in 2010 for $35,000, he was sent to Windfall Farms to train with Adrian Gonzalez, owner of Checkmate Thoroughbreds in Paso Robles. Gonzalez has been working with thoroughbreds for more than 15 years. He got his B.S. in animal science from Cal Poly State University while working with many breeding farms and training centers in California and Kentucky.
Sway Away, another Windfall Farms graduate, had hoped to make the cut, but it’s possible he may fall short. While he has won only one out of five starts, he is considered by some to be more talented than his stablemate Twice the Appeal. He took second place in the Best Pal and San Vicente Stakes, both grade II races.
The colt ran in the $1 million G1 Arkansas Derby on April 16, one of the signature qualifiers for the Kentucky Derby, placing fourth. He fell to the 24th spot on the list with graded earnings of $111,500. Now, he needs only one more horse to drop out to earn a place in the Derby. If he can’t make the cut, he’ll be entered in the second leg, the Preakness Stakes, but will lose his chance to win the Triple Crown, which requires a win in all three legs.
“Both Twice the Appeal and Sway Away are very well-bred,” says Gonzalez. Twice the Appeal’s sire, Successful Appeal, earned $655,681 during his racing career; and Sway Away’s sire, Afleet Alex, won two legs of the Triple Crown, Preakness and Belmont, and placed third overall at the Kentucky Derby, earning $2.7 million. The horses’ trainer, Jeff Bonde, is a veteran with 35 years experience. This year, Bonde’s horses have earned more than $1.2 million, making him one of the county’s top trainers.
Most horses trained by Checkmate Thoroughbreds are raised or bred in California or Kentucky. Training a horse with a rider begins around 20 months of age. At 2 years, the horse starts galloping on a track, and slowly the trainer begins increasing the difficulty of work to prepare the horse for racing at age 2 or 3. Because of the competitive nature of the sport, racehorses usually compete for only three to four years before retiring, although they only have a chance to race in the Kentucky Derby at age 3.
Between the farm and the various racetracks across the country, Checkmate Thoroughbreds, which leases its stables and horse facilities from Windfall Farms in Paso Robles, currently has about 100 horses it works with.
Gonzalez believes the climate and soil on Windfall Farms to be some of the best in the country for racing horses. In the last three years, its graduates have earned $12 million.
Windfall Farms is owned by the Santa Paula-based Limoneira Company, which leases the horse facilities to owners and trainers. John Chamberlain, a spokesman for Limoneira, says, “We are thrilled that horses that have trained at Windfall Farms have qualified for the Kentucky Derby. It’s not surprising to anyone that has visited Windfall Farms.
This is an exceptionally beautiful equestrian facility with state-of-the-art amenities. We’ll be keeping our fingers crossed and mint juleps on hand during the Derby.”
The science of training thoroughbreds is a precise one, and one that Gonzalez has mastered. He says two of the keys to training thoroughbred horses to race are building a personal relationship with the horse and designing a structured regimen.
According to Gonzalez, the mental preparation of a horse is just as important as its physical readiness. “There is a tremendous amount of time spent to mentally prepare them. A horse that enjoys our company will always try harder.”