06/24/2014 1:08PM

Dream continues for Imperative and his connections

Coady Photography
Claimed for $50,000, Imperative won the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic in April.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The worst seats in the stands for Saturday’s $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita may be directly behind Kenji Morinaga, the owner of the 4-year-old Imperative.

Consider Morinaga’s recollection of Imperative’s win in the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic in West Virginia on April 19, which he watched from his living room, not far from Santa Anita.

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“He started in the back, and I was getting off my couch,” Morinaga recalled last weekend. “When he came running, I was up in front of the TV and screaming. When he won, I could have jumped through the roof.”

For Morinaga, 47, the win capped a remarkable first year of involvement in racing. With trainer George Papaprodromou, Morinaga claimed his first horse last fall. He said he now has 15 or 16 horses with the 37-year-old Papaprodromou.

None has had a greater impact than Imperative, a Bernardini gelding who was claimed for $50,000 at Hollywood Park last December, when he finished second in a race over 1 1/16 miles.

This year, Imperative has earned $1,079,450. The Grade 2 Charles Town Classic is his only win in a season that includes second-place finishes in an optional claimer in January and the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes on Feb. 8, both at Santa Anita. The only subpar effort on Imperative’s record this year is a seventh in the Santa Anita Handicap on March 8 won by Game On Dude, who will be favored in the Gold Cup in a field expected to include Majestic Harbor, Clubhouse Ride, Fury Kapcori, and Salto Del Indio.

“I think he probably bounced after the San Antonio,” Papaprodromou said of Imperative’s Big Cap effort.

In the Charles Town Classic, Imperative was a 26-1 outsider in a field of seven. Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, who has the mount Saturday, Imperative closed from fifth with a sustained rally to reach the front with a furlong to go. He finished 1 1/2 lengths in front of Game On Dude.

“He ran a huge race,” Papaprodromou said.

Imperative’s millionaire status greatly exceeds the reasonable expectations Morinaga and Papaprodromou had for him last winter. Previously trained by Eoin Harty for Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Stable, Imperative had won twice at Golden Gate Fields – in a maiden race and an optional claimer – before he began running in claiming races in May 2013.

“We wanted to step him up and maybe he could end up being a little stakes horse,” Papaprodromou said. “We got lucky there. Since we claimed him, he’s getting better and better every day. He’s maturing.”

Morinaga runs an employee leasing firm that specializes in light industry jobs, he said. Previously, he owned a firm that handled medical billing. Racing has always been part of his life, largely through the interest of his father, a fan for decades.

Morinaga said it took time for him to warm to the sport.
“My father used to go all the time,” he said. “My brother started going with him. I felt it didn’t make sense to me to lose money gambling. They got me out here when I was 27. I hit the pick six.”

He recalls collecting $20,000 on the bet. Last year, Morinaga decided it was time for an even bigger risk – ownership. Following the success he has had with Imperative, Morinaga has continued to invest in horses.

“Our philosophy is we win, we keep buying,” Morinaga said. “We keep it in the pot.”

Imperative’s win in the Charles Town Classic has changed plans for him this season. The Breeders’ Cup Classic here Nov. 1 is a long-range goal, and a win in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita would provide a fees-paid berth to that race through the Breeders’ Cup Win and You’re In program.

One thing about Saturday’s race is predictable. If Imperative is anywhere near the front turning into the stretch, Morinaga will be on his feet. So will everyone around him.