2022: D'Amato's Dominance
One of the amazing aspects of Thoroughbred racing is that despite its long history, there are personalities who manage to enter uncharted territory from time to time.
A good modern-day example would be Game On Dude, who turned himself into an immortal of the Santa Anita Handicap when he captured an unprecedented third edition of the legendary race in 2014. Before he retired in 2003, Laffit Pincay, Jr. became the first jockey to reach 9,000 career wins. And Kelso stands as the only Thoroughbred to win Horse of the Year five times.
Rewriting the record books is not limited to just horses and jockeys. R.H. McDaniel was unstoppable at Santa Anita for the first half of the 1950s, winning six straight training titles. Charlie Whittingham set a standard of fourteen victories in the San Juan Capistrano which will probably never be equaled. And Woody Stephens famously won five consecutive Belmont Stakes in the 1980s.
Throughout Santa Anita's storied history, no trainer had ever reached sixty wins at the winter/spring meet. Doug O'Neill came closest of all, winning fifty-six during the 2006-07 season. In fact, O'Neill stood as the only trainer to even clear fifty victories, doing so three times. In fact, the only other trainer that can say he surpassed that magic number is Phil D'Amato, who saddled fifty-two winners during the 2020-21 season en route to being the meet's top trainer.
As it turned out, that meet proved to be a foreshadowing of what was to come one year later.
D'Amato did not get into the win column on opening day of the 2021-22 winter/spring meet, but he managed to guide some horses to placings on the program. It was not a bad start, but it would not be long before the barn got on a roll.
The first wins came on January 2, giving the D'Amato barn a nice start to the new year. That included a win by Bellabel in the Blue Norther Stakes, and that would be the first of dozens of visits to the winners' circle over the next few months.
January went well for D'Amato and his charges as they combined to win nine more times. Stakes triumphs were part of the good fortune as Rose Dawson took the Leigh Ann Howard California Cup Oaks and Leggs Galore was victorious in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf Sprint (D'Amato also swept the exacta with Alice Marble finishing runner-up). By the time January was over, D'Amato had twelve wins at Santa Anita while guiding horses to victory in the maiden special weight, maiden claiming, claiming, allowance optional claiming and stakes ranks.
The momentum did not slow down in February. After saddling Count Again to a Grade III win in the Thunder Road, D'Amato continued to take more pictures. Overall, the stable won nine times at Santa Anita alone (a couple of victories also came to fruition at Oaklawn Park), with a second stakes victory in Arcadia coming courtesy of Alice Marble in the Wishing Well.
More stakes followed on one of the biggest days of the meet. D'Amato and his crew enjoyed a tremendous Santa Anita Handicap undercard as three victories came their way. Along with an allowance score by That's Amare, graded stakes glory was experienced as Leggs Galore defeated everyone in the Grade II Buena Vista while Count Again topped the field in the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile. One more graded stakes title was celebrated courtesy of Acclimate, who traveled a mile and one-half to defeat all rivals in the Grade III San Luis Rey.
After three consecutive months of winning nine races, D'Amato added six more for the month of April. But two of them came on Santa Anita Derby Day. No stranger to preparing horses for big days, D'Amato sent out the talented turf runner Going Global to win the Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes. But D'Amato was not done for the day as he brought forth an upset winner in the Grade II Santa Anita Oaks as longshot Desert Dawn surprised the heavily favored Adare Manor. Already with well over thirty wins and multiple stakes trophies collected, Santa Anita had been good to D'Amato and his barn. But there was more to come as May and June followed.
May turned out to be the best month of the meet for D'Amato as he saddled an astonishing thirteen winners. In addition to enjoying some multi-win days, D'Amato added to his stakes count as he produced five stakes winners. The highlight of the month could very well have been saved for last, as D'Amato sent out Count Again to a big score in the Grade I Shoemaker Mile on May 30. That was not the only graded stakes win of the month, for Island of Love took the Grade III Senorita a couple of weeks earlier. But with the meet winding down, the meet was a total success no matter if any more wins were earned.
But more came. After another multi-win day to start off June, D'Amato closed out the season in fine fashion. He spent the next couple of weeks inching closer to Doug O'Neill's record of fifty-six winners for the meet, finally drawing level with his fellow trainer on June 17, the start of closing weekend. He did not have to wait long to take the record outright. Later that day, D'Amato set a new standard with win number fifty-seven as Carpe Vinum came home first in the seventh race the second of three wins that day. History unfolded before everyone at Santa Anita, but more of it charged down the final stretch of the meet.
Over the final two days, D'Amato added five more wins to his count, with the biggest one of all coming in the Grade III American Stakes with Hong Kong Harry. But Amy C, who won the sixth race on June 18, turned out to be pretty historical. Going back to when Santa Anita first opened in 1934, no trainer had ever won sixty races during the winter and spring. But now Phil D'Amato had.
In the midst of clearing a new wilderness, D'Amato put the cap on a stupendous meet. With two of his charges picking up first place checks, D'Amato went into the summer with a brand new record of sixty-three wins, a truly remarkable number. The bulk of his victories came on turf, but there is no denying that D'Amato knows how condition a horse. Already a winner of meet titles in the Southland prior to this meet, D'Amato had long proven to be a capable trainer. But the man who served as Mike Mitchell's assistant trainer several years earlier was destined to be part of Santa Anita's history.
It is hard to win a horse race. Anything can happen once the gates open, whether it is a horse getting blocked in the lane, getting caught up in a pace duel, or perhaps not exiting the gate well. On top of talent, luck is involved. While D'Amato's barn had its share of luck, trainers don't win meet titles or win several dozen races without having good horses and knowing what races to put those horses in. After months of work, D'Amato and his barn could look back and see what an amazing journey it was to create such history.
Even as Thoroughbred racing continues well into the twenty-first century, horses and people find places in the sport where no one has ever ventured. And one of those places was found with Phil D'Amato and his horses over nearly six months on Huntington Drive in 2022.