As a young man in Venezuela, Juan Carlos Avila, like many Venezuelan youths, had designs on becoming a professional baseball player. He tried second base, third base, and then realized the whole enterprise was a dead end.
“I tried to make myself better; it didn’t work,” Avila said.
Avila wound up at the racetrack, became a groom, an assistant starter, and an apprentice trainer, and in this endeavor all his work paid off, Avila rising to become one of Venezuela’s best-known trainers. Now, Avila has set himself a challenge no modern American trainer has taken — winning the Kentucky Derby with a horse returning from a months-long layoff.
King Guillermo, when he lines up in the Churchill Downs starting gate Saturday, will be racing for the first time since May 2. That will make it a 125-day layoff for King Guillermo, owned by former Tiger Victor Martinez.
When Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Derby, trainer Graham Motion was lauded for readying his horse following a 42-day layoff. Trainer Todd Pletcher fielded a torrent of layoff questions before Destin finished sixth in the 2016 Derby following a 55-day layoff. The longest Derby layoff since 1990 was the 62 days between Homeboykris’s pre-Derby start and his 16th-place finish in the 2010 Derby. Most contemporary Derby starters race in April: Between 1990 and 2001, 199 out of 205 Derby runners came into the race having run the month before.
Now, if you want to look deep into the past, you’ll find much different examples; Regret won the 1915 Derby after a 259-day layoff, Sir Barton the 1918 renewal following a 238-day break, but that is an apples-to-oranges comparison. The 2020 season, it might be argued, is grapefruit to oranges given the coronavirus pandemic leading to a Derby in September. But putting all that aside, the ask of King Guillermo and Avila is a gigantic one: Run 1 1/4 miles against the strongest competition the horse ever has faced while racing for the first time since King Guillermo finished a fine second behind subsequently retired Nadal 18 weeks ago in the Arkansas Derby.
“I never considered running him in a race before the Kentucky Derby,” said Avila, who was interviewed in a three-way phone call through an interpreter. “After the Arkansas Derby, I strategized a plan to bring him to the Derby day by day. So far, everything has gone according to plan.”
Avila turns 57 in September and trained in Venezuela 30 years, winning multiple training titles at La Rinconada, the country’s major track. He won the Clasico del Caribe twice, with El de Chine and Ninfa del Cielo, and trained Venezuelan champion sprinter Pedro Caiman, a son of Harlan’s Holiday who retired to stud undefeated in 11 starts. Early in 2018, Avila, citing security concerns, followed a long line of Venezuelan horsemen and emigrated to South Florida.
Avila won just six races in 2018, but at a breeze-up sale in March that year found a horse, Trophy Chaser, whose second-race maiden win that August produced a 96 Beyer Speed Figure and led to a start in the Grade 1 Champagne. That boosted Avila’s client base, which grew to include Martinez, a Venezuelan native living in Florida. Martinez’s request upon meeting Avila: “Find me a Kentucky Derby winner.” Avila, against the odds, has given Martinez a chance.
King Guillermo, a son of Uncle Mo and Slow Sand, by Dixieland Band, went for $150,000 at a 2-year-old in training sale in April 2019.
“To be honest,” Avila said. “I don’t know anything about pedigrees, but I watch the work, and if I like the conformation, I’m going for it.”
The 6-5 favorite for his career debut, a 5 1/2 -furlong dirt-sprint maiden last September, King Guillermo finished a deflating fifth.
“I’d told the owner that in 30 years I hadn’t had a horse working like him. You can imagine how disappointed I was,” Avila said.
But Avila hadn’t been wrong about King Guillermo, who turned in two very strong turf performances last fall, got the winter off, and came back from a 95-day layoff to win the March 7 Tampa Bay Derby, putting himself on the Derby trail. King Guillermo was a 49-1 shot at Tampa yet dominated the race from a forward position under Samy Camacho, a Venezuelan native who rode King Guillermo for the first time.
King Guillermo traveled strongly in the bridle during his turf races last year, but at Tampa and in the Arkansas Derby, Camacho had to ride his mount from the half-mile pole into deep stretch. It’s rare for a horse to maintain momentum like that, but at Tampa, especially, King Guillermo was going better at the eighth pole than he’d been at the three-eighths, and in both races he ran through the wire full of energy. King Guillermo won the Tampa Bay Derby by nearly five lengths and at Oaklawn validated that performance with his second-place finish behind super-talented Nadal.
The race in Arkansas followed a 56-day layoff and by then Avila already had formed his plan for a trip to the Derby in September. Avila said he treated some horses similarly in Venezuela, training them into an important goal to good effect, and to him, King Guillermo is most dangerous running fresh.
“He’s not a powerfully built horse, and I have to be careful bringing him into a race of his magnitude,” Avila said.
Even while King Guillermo raced and worked encouragingly last season, Avila didn’t like the way the colt jogged and galloped. He seemed uncomfortable, a little ouchy, less than his best self. Avila decided on a different approach this year: King Guillermo went to a Florida farm for 15 days following the Tampa Bay Derby and for one month after the Arkansas Derby. His regimen there was simple: “He walks and he eats,” Avila said.
Back at the track, Avila gives King Guillermo 1 1/2 -mile gallops — sometimes slightly longer — increasing their intensity from Days 1 to Day 3 before backing off again on the fourth day. Avila said King Guillermo never works in company. “If I did that, he’d break the track record!”
King Guillermo turned in strong work at Gulfstream in July before moving in early August to Churchill, where he has posted four timed workouts. From all appearances, he is thriving. The official clockings have been fast — five furlongs in a bullet 59.20, five furlongs in bullet 58.20 — and King Guillermo gallops out, his reaching stride belying his modest size, like he means business.
“I look at the horse now and he’s even better than I want him to be,” Avila said. “Everything has gone perfectly. Even if this doesn’t work out, I would do things the same way again.”
Farm life, weeks of galloping and working without a race – no trainer has brought a horse to the Kentucky Derby like this in a century. Juan Avila thinks he can end that long break.
When: Saturday, 6:50 p.m. post time
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville
TV: NBC, coverage from 2:30-7:30 p.m.
Favorite: Tiz the Law (3-5)