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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Mickey Gonzalez's dream was to run in the Kentucky Derby and he thought he had the horse to do it in Tonito M.
Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer convinced Gonzalez that while the Kentucky Derby wouldn't be a good idea for Tonito M., the horse indeed had a bright future as evidenced Sunday in the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park.
Ridden by Rafael Bejarano, Tonito M. went off at 5-1 odds and hung in the pack for much of the Grade 3 race before sweeping to the lead with about a sixteenth of a mile left and pulling away for a 2 3/4-length win over 50-1 long-shot Bay of Biscay. Tonito M. ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.41 on the fast track.
Tonito M., a Kentucky-bred son of Rock Hard Ten, began his racing career at Camarero in Puerto Rico, where he won six of his first seven races. The colt was the Horse of the Year and 2-year-old Champion in Puerto Rico last year.
Gonzalez, an entrepreneur from San Juan whose principal business is in insurance, bought the horse in February, but Tonito M. didn't come out of quarantine until mid-March. Gonzalez wanted to enter him immediately in a prominent Kentucky Derby prep race, but Hollendorfer advised against it, saying it would risk the horse's promising future.
"When I purchased him, my mind was, all the way, to run him in the Kentucky Derby," Gonzalez said. "He told me, 'We're not going to destroy this horse. He's not ready. We're going to push him so hard. Please, please don't do that, because this is a great horse.' I decided to follow his advice."
Tonito M.'s results ever since have proven the trainer correct.
In his first start, Tonito M. ran second in the Laz Barrera Stakes at Santa Anita Park in May. On July 5, he finished third behind top 3-year-old Shared Belief in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Derby.
After an unsuccessful run in a turf race — the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 9 — Tonito M. returned to the dirt Sept. 6 and was third in the Los Alamitos Mile. That set him up well for the Oklahoma Derby, Gonzalez said.
"My agent and I convinced Jerry to bring him down for this race," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez met with Bejarano on Sunday morning and told the jockey to run the race as he thought best. Bejarano set the colt off the pace, content to let long-shot Louies Flower, then Bay of Biscay, lead the way — with even-money favorite Wildcat Red right behind — before beginning his move on the final turn.
"I had a very good trip," Bejarano said. "The horse broke very good. About a half-mile, I felt like I still had a little horse. He came into the stretch and it was on."
Bay of Biscay held on for second and Wildcat Red wasn't a factor down the stretch while finishing third.
"I think he had a perfect trip," said Wildcat Red's jockey, Edgard Zavas. "They just ran him off and he didn't have problems. He broke good out of the gate. He just got beat."
Tonito M. paid $12.80, $6.60 and $4.60. Bay of Biscay returned $38.80 and $17.40, and Wildcat Red paid $2.40. Louies Flower, an 86-1 long shot, hung on for fourth in the 14-horse field, the largest for the Oklahoma Derby since 1991.
Gonzalez knows what his immediate future holds. He's scheduled to have surgery for a blocked artery Wednesday after traveling to Oklahoma against his doctor's orders.
As for Tonito M.? Gonzalez is intrigued by the upcoming Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park — or possibly a race at Santa Anita a week later — but will likely defer to Hollendorfer's wishes. After all, that formula has proven successful.
"I will wait for the horse to get to California, then see how he comes out and start to talk with Jerry and Tony (Matos, Gonzalez's stable agent) and see what will be ... his next race," Gonzalez said.