02/01/2011 2:03PM

Aggie Engineer coming into his own

Benoit & Associates
Aggie Engineer with owner Roberta Williford and jockey Joe Talamo.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The Super Bowl is taking over Dallas-Fort Worth this weekend, but for one Dallas couple the best sporting action is on the West Coast.

Ward and Roberta Williford cannot wait to get out of Big D this weekend. Sunday at Santa Anita, their Aggie Engineer seeks his fourth consecutive win in the $150,000 San Antonio Stakes, and the race’s importance could not be higher.

“We’re not going to miss any of his races for a while,” Ward Williford said last weekend. ”He’s a high priority for us.”

Aggie Engineer has won stakes in his last two starts – the only stakes wins of his 17-race career – and a big performance on Sunday in the Grade 2 San Antonio could lead to a start in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap on March 5.

The Big Cap has been the goal since Aggie Engineer won his first stakes in the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park on Dec. 4, leading throughout the 1 1/8 miles. He followed with a victory in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap over 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita on Jan. 8, a race in which he stalked the early pace and won by 3 1/4 lengths, the largest winning margin of his career.

The Willfords and trainer Paddy Gallagher considered skipping the San Antonio and training Aggie Engineer toward the Big Cap, but that was not deemed a logical idea.

“We didn’t want to train into the Santa Anita Handicap,” Ward Williford said. “We just can’t pass up a race to train into another one.”

Aggie Engineer, 6, has been in training for the better part of the last three years, and has only become a consistent stakes performance since the fall. There were doubts in 2007, when Aggie Engineer was a 2-year-old, if he would even race.

Concern over an ankle led one veterinarian in Florida to suggest to the Willifords that Aggie Engineer would not make it.

“He had an ankle that was oddly conformed and it blew up on,” Ward Williford said. “The vet looked at it – he’s an excellent vet – and he said, ‘With this kind of conformation, I don’t think he’ll stay in training.’ ”

Other opinions were sought – Kentucky veterinarian Bill Baker, who bred the champion Blind Luck, and trainer Art Fisher, who prepares the Williford’s horses for racing – and the decision was made to proceed.

“That was one reason it took him a long time to get ready,” Williford said. “Bill Baker said he’ll mature into that ankle. He said, ‘That’s the way he’s made. Be careful with him.’ And we were.”

As he told that story, Williford was riding in a golf cart at Dallas Athletic Club, speaking on his mobile phone. “Hold on one second, I’ve got to hit a golf shot,” he said. About 30 seconds later – and apparently one successful approach to the green later – he was back on the line.

“All along we thought he had talent,” he said of Aggie Engineer.

Aggie Engineer is the best horse owned by the Willifords. Ward, 68, is an attorney, and vice chairman of the board of Republic Title of Texas, a title insurance agency in Dallas. A graduate of Texas Tech in Lubbock, he and his wife named Aggie Engineer for a granddaughter, who attended rival Texas A&M.

For the Willifords, Aggie Engineer’s maiden race win in his first start in February 2008 was a milestone, and not just because of the physical issues that Aggie Engineer faced the preceding year. Gallagher’s runners sometimes need a start to win, but Aggie Engineer scored in his debut.

“He won that race impressively,” Williford said.

Aggie Engineer made only one more start in 2008, in December, but won three allowance races or optional claimers in 2009. By last summer, Aggie Engineer was stuck between tough allowance races and minor stakes. He was second in the restricted Wickerr Stakes at Del Mar in July, but last of six in the Windy Sands Handicap there in September.

He has not lost since, a streak that began with a win in his following start, an optional claimer at Hollywood Park in October. Joe Talamo, who rode Aggie Engineer to three placings last spring and summer, has been aboard through the three-race winning streak.

“He’s had some moments that he showed he was good horse,” Williford said. “I think learning how to relax has been a key. Joe Talamo has gotten this horse to relax tremendously, and that allows him to carry his speed.”

The success has carried Aggie Engineer to the fore of California older horse division this winter. With the Big Cap looming, the timing could not be better.