Trainer Phil D'Amato realizes his Kentucky Derby dream thanks to Stronghold

In a photo provided by Benoit Photo, Stronghold and jockey Antonio Fresu, outside.
Stronghold, with jockey Antonio Fresu, leads Imagination in the Santa Anita Derby. (Benoit Photo / Associated Press)

It’s really quite simple. If you’re in horse racing, regardless of your job or position, you want to get to the Kentucky Derby. But the reality is very few make it.

Phil D’Amato has won multiple training titles at Santa Anita and Del Mar. He’s had 32 starts in the Breeders’ Cup. He's missing only one thing from his rather impressive resume and that box will be checked Saturday when the gates open in the 12th race at Churchill Downs.

“This is pretty much what I’ve worked my whole career to get to this point,” D’Amato said. “It’s been my dream to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby. And to finally achieve that, I’m still taking it one day at a time. I can’t really put it into feelings. And to be able to share it with my friends, family and owners, it’s just a good feeling.”

When he talks about his “whole career” you are talking years, not decades. The 48-year-old Los Angeles native has been a head trainer only since 2014 when he took over the barn of the late Mike Mitchell. That’s not that long of a wait, unless, of course, you are the one waiting.

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The horse that made the Derby dream possible is Stronghold, who won the Sunland Derby and Santa Anita Derby. With trainer Bob Baffert still ineligible to race at Churchill Downs, the weight of California racing was on D’Amato’s shoulders before the Santa Anita Derby. He needed to finish at least third or the state might be without a Kentucky Derby starter for the first time in at least 70 years. (It’s probably longer but records are difficult to verify.)

Obviously, Stronghold did better than third, running down Imagination in the stretch to win by a neck. The colt isn’t getting the respect the Santa Anita Derby winner normally gets and is listed at 20-1 on the morning line. Early betting shows him going off at twice that price.

D’Amato is no stranger to Churchill Downs having run a string of horses there and he’s also had horses on the Derby Day undercard on multiple occasions. But his history with the track goes back even further.

“I started really working pretty much at Churchill Down when I first started in this game, finishing off the day looking at the Twin Spires, thinking about one day, hopefully, getting to the Derby and training a horse,” D’Amato said. “To finally realize all of that … I’m not going to take anything for granted.”

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D’Amato was a political science major at USC and then went to Arizona’s renowned Race Track Industry Program. He took all that education and, well, got the same job as if he didn’t have a couple of degrees.

“I started from the bottom, working as a hot walker,” D’Amato said. “Hot walker to groom, groom to foreman, foreman to assistant and so forth. I didn't get to jump through any special circumstances. I worked my way to where I am.”

Those who follow Southern California racing might be surprised to learn that D’Amato has a horse in the Kentucky Derby because he is known as a turf trainer. Chad Brown, also known as a turf trainer, has two horses in the Derby including second-favorite Sierra Leone at 3-1.

Brown’s turf success was by design, D’Amato’s by necessity.

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“The [turf] stigma is really only there just by dollars and cents,” D’Amato said. “The economics of the game in California just make it a lot easier for owners to own really good quality turf horses than they do dirt horses. Good pedigree dirt horses go for a lot more money.

"So just by the economics of the game, I've kind of fallen into that turf trainer stigma. But I've won many Grade 1s on the dirt. My first Grade 1 was on the dirt. So, [being here] is validation and hopefully people see I can train a nice quality dirt horse just as well as a turf horse and get more dirt horses.”

Stronghold will be wearing the No. 18 on his saddlecloth, but because of the scratch of Encino, he will move up to gate 17, which is the only gate that has not had a winner, going 0 for 44. It hasn’t had a horse hit the board since 1988 when Forty Niner finished second and hasn’t had a top-five finisher since Don’t Get Mad in 2005.

D’Amato dismisses that gate 17 as any kind of factor.

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“I'd rather be on the outside than the inside,” he said. “We don't need to be stuck [on the inside], getting jostled around. [From the outside we can] get nice and clear and maybe follow Fierceness into a good spot going into the first turn.”

Fierceness, the 5-2 morning line favorite, will break from the 16, which means Stronghold can keep an eye on the horse that is considered the most likely winner.

If there is reason for optimism about Stronghold’s chances, consider that the colt has already won over the Churchill surface. He broke his maiden in Louisville beating two other Derby starters in the race, Resilience and Track Phantom. And Fierceness has run well only every other race and the Derby is in the “other” slot.

More dreams are shattered than realized on the first Saturday in May. Regardless of the outcome, there’s a good chance this won’t be D’Amato’s only Kentucky Derby.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.