Updated on 09/15/2011 12:50PM

Bienamado is patience's reward

Benoit & Associates
Bienamado, who is taking another shot at the Arlington Million, has thrived under the loving care of trainer Paco Gonzalez and owners Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - He is a bright chestnut with a white face, a huge horse with a massive stride that eats up the turf. He is the top grass horse in the country, capable of sustaining his speed over the longest distances in American flat racing. Once you've seen him race, Bienamado is not the kind of horse you quickly forget.

But in the wrong hands, he could have turned out to be just another runner. Troubled by minor injuries to his legs and back, Bienamado has thrived because his trainer, Paco Gonzalez, and owners, Trudy McCaffery and John Toffan, have let him heal when he needed to heal and rest when he needed to rest. Their patient approach has landed Bienamado in Chicago this weekend to do what he was favored to do last season: win the Arlington Million.

The waiting has not always been easy. "We had such high hopes last year," Toffan said. "Basically, he lost his 3-year-old year and part of 4."

It's not like 2000 was a bust for Bienamado, now 5. He won three of four starts, made more than $537,000 and won the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup. But the Turf Cup was in December, after championship honors had been decided, and after Bienamado had missed the season's ultimate goal, the Breeders' Cup Turf.

Bienamado was such a convincing winner of his first two races last year that he was a 5-2 favorite in last year's Million, in which he finished fourth. He came out of the race with a bad back after being roughed up leaving the gate, though the injury was not severe. Some horsemen would have pushed on toward the Breeders' Cup. Instead, doing what they thought was right for their horse, Bienamado's connections deferred their dreams - again.

McCaffery and Toffan bred Bienamado, a son of their turf star Bien Bien, whom Gonzalez also trained. Since Bienamado was bred for grass, he was sent to race in Europe, where he made two starts as a 2-year-old and was being pointed to the Epsom Derby when injury forced him from the race.

Brought to the U.S. in the fall of his 3-year-old season, Bienamado was a week away from the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby when Gonzalez noticed heat in the colt's knee.

"He X-rayed clean, but there was heat," Gonzalez said. "I told the owners, you could make the race, but you might rather have the horse later."

For McCaffery and Toffan, Gonzalez's opinion was as good as a decision, and Bienamado was turned out until his 4-year-old season, though it meant they would have to wait yet again for their horse to fulfill his potential. It was the sort of difficult situation that can fray owner-trainer relationships, but that didn't happen with McCaffery, Toffan, and Gonzalez.

"We think he's the best trainer in the world," Toffan said. "He lives and dies with his horses. We make most decisions together, but he calls the shots."

Said McCaffery, "We have a very good friendship, as well as tremendous mutual respect."

Gonzalez trains privately for McCaffery and Toffan, a position he has held since 1989, when Joe Manzi, their former trainer, died of a heart attack. Soft spoken and somewhat reserved in public, Gonzalez is dedicated to the care of his horses. He weighs them religiously to be certain they're maintaining their health - Bienamado weighed 1,165 pounds earlier this week, about 90 pounds more than his sire - and runs them only when they are fit and sound. Gonzalez has barely started 50 horses this year but has won nearly 30 percent of his starts.

From the beginning, he brought Bienamado along slowly, realizing that the horse needed time to grow into his large frame. "Right now, he's more mature than he was last year, stronger," Gonzalez said. "He's always been a relaxed horse. Nothing bothers him."

Bienamado, whom McCaffery calls "probably the kindest horse in the barn," puts everything he has into his races, and his intense effort combined with his tremendous size and speed necessitate ample spacing of his races.

"He's such a hard trier," said Chris McCarron, Bienamado's regular rider. "He puts so much energy into his races. Each time he's run, Paco backs off of him afterward. He's not the greatest work horse. He must be pretty smart, because he seems to save his energy. But as we get more serious with his works, he gets more serious in the morning. When I asked him to go along in his work the other day, he was willing."

With nearly two months gone by since Bienamado's last race, Gonzalez's skills as a trainer will be tested this weekend. But it's a test he's passed before. Bienamado had a similar layoff between his last race of the spring and his only start this summer, the Grade 1 Whittingham Handicap over 10 furlongs, which he won by almost two lengths in perhaps the most impressive performance of his career.

"You know, he amazes me," Toffan said. "He seems to keep doing it easier and easier."

Of course Bienamado's connections would like the horse to win the Million and the Breeders' Cup, and to end his career a champion if, as Toffan suggests, Bienamado goes to stud next year.

But Gonzalez is looking no further than this weekend. "I go race by race," he said. "I would just love to win the Arlington Million."

After that, they'll just wait some more and see.