08/12/2011 3:56PM

Del Mar: Avila savoring his opportunities


Upon entering two or more contenders in a big race like Sunday’s $250,000 John C. Mabee Stakes at Del Mar, Charlie Whittingham would arch one of those animated eyebrows and pronounce:

“We got ’em surrounded.”

A.C. Avila won’t go that far, but he is proud to lay claim to a pair of runners in this year’s field of eight, even if the other half dozen are as salty a bunch as you can find this side of Arlington’s Beverly D.

The race in Chicago for the same division on the same weekend figured to suck all of the air out of the room, and it did a pretty good job. But the Mabee won’t be cheaply won.

Harmonious has had her race and seems spoiling for a fight. Malibu Pier and Cozie Rosie have been at each other all year. It would be a mistake to throw out either Medaglia d’Amour or Turning Top. And what’s this? Wasted Tears, winner of the 2010 Mabee, is back in town looking for trouble.

Into this scramble wades Avila with 7-year-old Celtic Princess, winner of the Royal Heroine Mile at Hollywood Park, and 4-year-old Go Forth North, a winner of two stakes last year, including the Sandy Blue over the course.

The filly and the mare are stabled side by side in Avila’s Del Mar barn. Celtic Princess, a homebred from Brazil, is a finely made bay daughter of Public Purse built along the lines of a gazelle. Go Forth North, a chestnut daughter of the Danehill stallion North Light, cuts a more substantial figure. Avila proudly offered to bring them both out for inspection, but they looked so comfortable in their stalls.

The trainer and Go Forth North began their association last summer with a Del Mar maiden win and the restricted Sandy Blue, which she shared in a dead heat with Warren’s Jitterbug. After that, Avila was not shy, running her in five straight tough stakes while winning the Ramser, finishing second in the Palomar, and posting close thirds in the Matriarch and the Robert F. Frankel.

Go Forth North came out of the Frankel on New Year’s Day with a hairline fracture in a cannon bone. She got a pin inserted to enhance healing and two months off.

“Even that day, with that injury, she could have won if she hadn’t been sitting back off a 51 half,” Avila said. “She was that close before when they went a half in 47 and ran big.”

As for bringing her back in the deep water of the Mabee, Avila was philosophical.

“They’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.

As for Celtic Princess, she’s already rolling this year. In her three starts for Avila she has won twice, including the Royal Heroine, and finished a close second in the Gamely at Hollywood Park to Beverly D. entrant Dubawi Heights. The Mabee was always on her dance card, but Avila and her owner, the Coudelaria Jessica farm of Luis Fernando Dannemann, took a hard look at running Celtic Princess against the boys in the Eddie Read earlier in the meet. Speed players were salivating, but then she was scratched.

“In my opinion she likes that space of 35 to 40 days between races,” Avila said. “You figure that out, that’s the way you try to get the best out of a good horse.

When Celtic Princess goes postward Sunday under Rafael Bejarano, undoubtedly controlling the pace, it will have been 41 days since her head loss in the Gamely.

Antonio Carlos Avila, 57, hails from the city of Porto Allegre in the horse country of southern Brazil. He came to America in 1990 amid the economic turmoil triggered by the decision of newly elected president Fernando Collor de Mello to freeze personal bank accounts and convert them to national bonds in what turned out to be a futile attempt to halt hyper-inflation.

“Everybody went to sleep with like $100,000 and woke up with $50,” Avila said.

While Avila has made America his home − he has sons attending USC and UCLA − he still holds a fond place for the way horses are trained in Brazil, especially at a major racing center like Sao Paulo, where he had been stabled.

“You have time to respect the horse more,” he said. “The barns you buy yourself, so you can make them as beautiful as you want. The track is in the middle of the city, a real attraction.”

Since establishing himself in California, Avila’s list of stakes winners has included Alvo Certo, Made for Magic, Rush With Thunder, River Savage, and Imponente Purse, winner of the 2011 Sunset Handicap. Avila will forever be associated, though, with Global Hunter, winner of the 2009 Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar and, more dramatically, the 2010 American Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Seven at the time, Global Hunter ran what was probably the best race of his life to defeat Temple City a head. In the next step after the wire he shattered the sesamoids in his right ankle and was immediately pulled up. Avila rushed to the track, fearing the worst. And it was bad, but Avila insisted the horse be given a chance. The trainer rode the 100 miles with Global Hunter to the Alamo Pintado equine clinic that night and sat through the emergency surgery.

“My friend Shawn Turner, who owns Global Hunter, always tells me you’ve got to enjoy every moment,” Avila said. “But that day there was no way to even enjoy a moment. Thankfully, the horse is doing good. He’s at Magali Farm near Alamo Pintado, and he got seven or eight mares this year.

“When something like that happens, though, you almost feel like you’ve got to start all over,” Avila said. “That’s why Sunday will be so special. You wait many days for a chance like this.”