On the Friday before the 2012
Belmont Stakes, amidst all of the excitement of I'll Have Another and a potential Triple Crown, the featured 10th
race was the grade two Brooklyn Handicap.
A solid field included the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Marathon winner, Eldaafer. Eldaafer had recently been
returned to the care of trainer Diane Alvarado and the now seven year-old son
of AP Indy had just turned in two impressive bullet works at Monmouth Park.
I met Diane Alvarado at barn 14 on the backstretch at Monmouth Park to try and learn about
how she managed to win a Breeders’ Cup race with her first horse. A horse who
had been claimed for only $20,000.
Hanging on the outside of
her barn is a big purple and white sign marking her barn as the home of a
Breeders’ Cup winner. Alvarado’s
barn is a haven for animals and amongst the horses there are goats, cats, dogs,
and even some exotic birds in her office. Alvarado is an animal lover and
everyone knows that.
Alvarado grew up in
Chicago and fell in love with horses at a young age. “I used to jump when I was
younger with my mom, but I got older, so I went to the track to Arlington Park and trainer Noel Hickey
sent me to his farm in Ocala, Irish Acres, and that’s where I started galloping
The owner had claimed a
few nice horses in Florida, but that left Alvarado with a big decision. She
could go out on her own or go back and work for Tagg. Clearly, it was a win-win situation for her.
“I wasn’t expecting it,
the owner had claimed three horses in Florida that were nice, but I was scared,
it was a big responsibility or I could go be an assistant for Barclay
Tagg. The owner said he had a
horse named Eldaafer who he had claimed off of Kiaran McLaughlin and was
supposed to be a nice horse.”
With the promise that she
would get Eldaafer, Alavarado made the decision to go out on her own. That was
in May of 2009, and just a month later as a four year-old Eldaafer would win
the grade two Brooklyn Handicap and its $120,000 purse in his first start for
her. The Brooklyn Handicap would
become a race that more than once would show that Alvarado is a trainer that
understands the nuances of this talented but quirky horse.
It wasn’t as easy as it
sounds because Alvarado had heard that Eldaafer hadn’t been training very well.
She explained, “One day he would train well and the next day he would refuse to
go to the track and back and forth and he pulled the same thing with me for
awhile. I had to learn how to outthink him.”
Eldaafer knows his way
around the track and he likes to do things his own way. He knows where the finished line is and
once he gets there he doesn’t like to run any further. He knows what the distance poles mean
and when it is time to start running slower or faster. So Alvarado has to outthink him when
she wants him to gallop more than a mile or to breeze a relatively short
Alvarado has learned what
Eldaafer likes and dislikes and he loves to travel, whether it is on an
airplane or in a horse van. “He loves the van. You pull up the van and he
starts whinnying and he drags you on to the van.”
Before the 2010 Breeders' Cup Marathon, Eldaafer
was training brilliantly and Alvarado was the one riding him in his final
morning preparations. “When I galloped him over the track (Churchill Downs) I
wanted to gallop a mile and a quarter but I couldn’t pull him up after a mile
and half.” It was then that she knew he was going to run a big race.
Eldafaar is an extremely
versatile horse. He won on dirt
and turf and in 2010, including four races at four different tracks with four
different jockeys. But on the other hand he can be extremely difficult. He will
not run his best race if any little thing is bothering him.
Eldaafer ran a distant
sixth in his attempt to defend his Breeders’ Cup Marathon title in 2011. That
year there had been a lot of rain and the Churchill Downs strip was very deep and muddy below the surface and he had not been
training well on it. After that race the owners, who are based on the west
coast, decided to move him closer to home. Two different trainers tried to
figure out the puzzle that is Eldaafer. They tried three different tracks,
three different riders, and three different surfaces out west, but the best
result in 2012 was a fourth place.
Alvarado said it was very
tough seeing the horse walk out of her barn, but she watched from a distance
and hoped for that Eldaafer would do his best. She sincerely added that, “In
the mean time you still love the horse.”
The last try was in the mile
and a half grade three Tokyo City Cup
at Santa Anita. At that distance Eldaafer has a lifetime record of 2-1-3 from
eight starts. He finished fourth and it was then that she got a text message
from the owners saying, “Find out when there’s the next plane coming out. It
was bittersweet because if he doesn’t run good in that race I get him back. I
was just hoping that he would come back sound because I never had any issues
Five days later he had
returned to Alvarado’s care. She had to back off his training because he didn’t
seem like himself for the first month. He didn’t breeze until they got back to
Monmouth in May and then he turned in those two stellar works right before the
2012 Brooklyn. At 26-1 Eldaafer ran another big race to finish second behind
the extremely impressive Redeemed. Eldaafer beat the rest of the field by
two and a half lengths while drawing away from Arthur's Tale.
After the Brooklyn,
Eldaafer’s earnings hit $802,865 and Alvarado feels like it would be really
cool if he could reach the $1,000,000 mark and make one more try at the Breeders’ Cup Marathon at Santa Anita in November. One thing for sure is that nobody is
going to take Eldaafer away from Diane Alvarado again because she seems to be
the only trainer that knows how to outthink this long distance specialist.