08/10/2017 4:26PM

Correas has earned his ticket to big time

Keeneland/Coady Photography
Trainer Ignacio Correas will saddle morning-line favorite Dona Bruja in Saturday’s Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill – A friend and colleague from back home in Argentina came to see Ignacio Correas in New York during 2002. The September before, Correas had left Argentina with his wife and two children. His friend could hardly believe the man before him.

“I had lost weight, from 165 to 128,” Correas said. “I started working 3:30 in the morning and I would leave at 5:30 in the evening every day. He said, ‘You you need to go home! What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m going to do good!’ and he said. ‘You’re not doing good. You’re doing terrible.’ ”

Correas did not go home. And he was right about doing good. Saturday at Arlington, Correas starts Dona Bruja, the morning-line favorite in the Grade 1, $600,000 Beverly D. Stakes, and Kasaqui, a contender in the Grade 1 Arlington Million, a race in which he finished second last year.

Correas, 57, is balding and of average height, but radiates ferocity when he warms to a conversation. He was born to a racing family of means that paved a path to early success, but along the way Correas learned to work, and after coming to America he would have to employ that education to an extent scarcely imaginable.

“In America I had it pretty tough,” Correas said. “If I knew that it was that tough, I probably don’t even come.”

The full name is Ignacio Correas IV. Correas’s family has been breeding racehorses since 1872. The first Don Ignacio Correas traveled to England in 1906 and came home with the Epsom Derby winner Diamond Jubilee, who had been standing at stud for King Edward VII. Diamond Jubilee became a foundation stallion in Argentina, and the Correas farm became a durable powerhouse in Argentine racing.

Correas, leaning against a sedan outside his barn at Arlington on a recent morning, said his family has won the Argentine version of the Derby nine times.

It was in a 20th century version of this environment that Correas was raised. Correas disdained formal education and wanted to be a jockey, but after a stint at jockey school at age 14, it became apparent he was too tall for the profession. Correas wound up at university after an indifferent high school education and dropped out after a semester.

“It’s the old story – you study or you work,” Correas said.

First came work at the family farm, then as an assistant manager at the famed Haras Santa Maria de Araras in Brazil. Correas had fallen onto a path to succeed his father, who sent him to Europe to gain a more worldly understanding of the craft. Correas’s father was close to the Head family in France, particularly jockey Freddie Head, and Correas went first to stay with the trainer Alec Head. The plan was for him to move on to a farm in Cannes, but that plan changed after Correas got a taste of the Head stables.

“I guess that if I am a trainer, that’s where it began,” Correas said. “That’s where I said, ‘This is what I want to do. I don’t want to go to the farm.’ ”

Back home, Correas was given a job as a groom in 1979 for the family’s trainer, Jose Irzusda. In 1980, the family won the Argentine Derby with Pretenzioso. In the barn at the same time was another top-level horse, Campero.

“What I learned from Irzusda is you don’t need a system,” Correas said. “Horses are different. Irzusda, he would train Campero like a filly, barely do something with him. And I mean he was running a mile and a half, two miles. Pretenzioso, he was a big tank, and he would two-minute lick him the day of the race. Completely different horses but they both run a mile and a half, both trained completely different, and both very successful.”

Correas returned to France as a groom when Campero traveled to campaign in Europe. Campero was trained by David Smaga, a native of Spain.

“Smaga, he was tough,” Correas said. “I think he wanted to make it hard on the son of the owner. The thing I learned the most from him was the work ethic. Smaga told me before I left, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to be a better horseman, but I know that you can work anywhere and you can be good, because now you know how to work.’”

By December 1984, Correas was out on his own as an Argentine trainer. His stable grew and grew, swelling to more than 100 horses. Correas trained Grade 1 winners and trained the American star Festin before the horse was shipped to California. Burned out by the expansive operation, he cut back and found a more comfortable number, about 40 head.

And so things might have gone along indefinitely had not Argentina’s economy tanked, the rule of law disintegrating along with it.

“I bought a great house, had a great home with my wife and two kids,” Correas said. “I got robbed twice at the gate of my house. My wife with my son got robbed another two times. I said, ‘You know what? I think that we’ve had enough.’ I saw the whole country was going nuts.”

Diane Perkins, who owns Kasaqui, was a close family friend who owned farms in Argentina and Kentucky. She set Correas up with a job as an assistant to trainer Billy Badgett. The family moved to New York.

Correas lasted eight months with Badgett and then quit. Correas worked as a veterinary assistant and picked up whatever side work he could, and eventually moved to northern Virginia with his family to work on a farm. He stayed for a little more than a year.

“I told my wife, ‘Let’s go to Kentucky. That’s where the horses are,’ ” Correas said.

Correas, settled in Lexington in 2003, and found work as an assistant to trainer David Banks. The stable numbered nine and was not winning. Before the end of the year, Correas was let go.

He had one horse of his own that raced 11 times in 2003 and 2004 and earned less than $20,000. Correas started riding again, working as a freelance exercise rider. He galloped random horses at Keeneland when the wind chill was below zero. The man who had trained 100 horses in Argentina was driving other peoples’ stock to race at Turway Park for $50 a head. He was working four jobs, “like a crazy son of a gun,” Correas said. He was 44.

“My wife comes from one of the best families in Argentina,” Correas said. “She was walking horses at 3:30 in the morning. She never complained.”

Then, by chance, an old friend he saw at a horse sale told him there was a trainer in California who could use an assistant. The trainer was Bill Curran, who hired Correas and turned his career back around.

“Mr. Curran, he was incredible,” Correas said.

Correas worked six years in California, got hired by Eric Guillot to work at a farm in Lafayette, La., for Southern Equine, did that for a year, and was poised to return to California to take over Curran’s operation when, by a random set of circumstances, he was hired to be the farm trainer for Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Farm in Maryland.

It was a great job, Correas said, but internal politics led to his being fired after six years. In 2015, Ignacio Correas went back out on his own as a head trainer. But this time, after years of struggle, everything clicked. Correas had 18 winners from 138 runners in 2016 with stable earnings of nearly $900,000. Already this year he has 18 winners and stable earnings of about $735,000.

“I don’t know how this happened so fast,” said Correas, who runs his main string out of Keeneland and has a string at Arlington for the first time this summer, overseen by his son Ben.

Correas got two horses from Argentina in 2015 that looked like they might be really good. Idolo Porteno carried the bigger reputation, but a clocker friend from Argentina told Correas it was Kasaqui, who was bred and is owned by Perkins, who was the one to watch.

“I started breezing this son of a gun, and he’s breezing like a rocket,” Correas said. “I called Diane and told her, ‘We might be into something; this horse can run.’ ”

Kasaqui won two races and almost $365,000 last year and might have won the Arlington Million with a better trip. More important, he functioned as living advertisement for Correas.

“If it wasn’t for Kasaqui, I don’t know,” he said.

This spring, Correas got something perhaps even better than Kasaqui, the mare Dona Bruja. Kasaqui had been a good horse, not great, in Argentina, but Dona Bruja already was a star when she came here this spring. She has won two graded turf stakes this summer in eye-catching fashion, and her trainer could not have more confidence in the filly going into the Beverly D.

It pays to attend to his opinion. Correas has seen a thing or two along the way.

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