10/14/2009 12:00AM

Gitano Hernando an inspiration

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Benoit & Associates
Gitano Hernando (right) wins last Saturday's Goodwood, defeating, among others, the winners of this year's Kentucky Derby and Pacific Classic.

The one-two finish by Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic was certain to embolden Europeans to head en masse to the race this year, and if they needed any more encouragement to run against America's best on a synthetic surface, they got it last Saturday, when the previously unheralded Gitano Hernando scored an upset victory in the , the final prep at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting for the BC Classic.

Even with Sea the Stars, Europe's top-ranked horse, having defected from the Breeders' Cup on Tuesday with his retirement, the Europeans still will be strongly represented in the Classic with the likes of the Aidan O'Brien-trained pair of Mastercraftsman and Rip Van Winkle, both multiple Group 1 winners whose only losses this year were in races won by Sea the Stars.

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Gitano Hernando was far less accomplished. Before Saturday, he had run in only one group stakes race, the Group 3 Dee Stakes in May at Chester, in which he finished second. But his success in two races on synthetic surfaces in Great Britain convinced Barry Irwin, the president of Team Valor International, to try Gitano Hernando on a synthetic surface here. All he did was knock off the winners of this year's Kentucky Derby, Pacific Classic, Dixie, San Diego, and Californian, and last year's Santa Anita Derby, Travers, Swaps, Eddie Read, and Goodwood.

Irwin, in partnership with longtime client Gary Barber, purchased Gitano Hernando last year at the end of his 2-year-old campaign, which concluded with a victory against maidens on Polytrack at Wolverhampton.

Team Valor left Gitano Hernando with Marco Botti, his original trainer. Botti, 32, has been training on his own for four years and is based in Newmarket, England, after apprenticing under Bill Mott in the United States and Luca Cumani in Great Britain. A native of Italy, he is the son of Alduino Botti and nephew of Guiseppe Botti, trainers who dominate the sport in Italy, with more than 30 titles between them in Milan and Pisa.

Gitano Hernando was scheduled to make his first start of the year in the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton, which Churchill Downs cooked up in order to attract a British invader for this year's Derby. But Gitano Hernando was so unaccomplished at that point that he was excluded from the field because it was oversubscribed.

Instead, Gitano Hernando won a handicap at Doncaster on March 29.

"After that, we mapped out a plan to get him to the Belmont Stakes," said Aron Wellman, the racing manager for Team Valor.

To prep for the Belmont, Gitano Hernando was entered in the May 8 Dee Stakes on turf at Chester.

"Chester has tight, American-style turns," Wellman said.

Gitano Hernando finished second, a result that stood despite a lengthy postrace inquiry.

"He was fouled no less than three times," Wellman said. "They gave the rider of the winner five days, but they did not take his number down. We were disappointed, but it was encouraging, because we knew we had a graded stakes horse on our hands."

A trip to the Belmont, however, was abandoned because Gitano Hernando came out of the Dee, run on firm turf, "jammed up," Wellman said.

"Rather than force the issue," Wellman said, "we scrapped the Belmont. We had to back off and get him right."

Gitano Hernando did not race again until Sept. 17, in a minor stakes race going approximately 1 1/16 miles on Polytrack at Wolverhampton. Jockey Kieren Fallon, recently back from a lengthy suspension, was employed to ride.

"Barry asked Marco to have Kieren get on the horse," Wellman said. "Kieren is a legend when it comes to evaluating the quality level of a horse. The horse broke the course record. Marco said he was about 80 percent fit. Kieren said he thought he was a Group 2 horse, at worst.

"The easy route at that point would have been to come to Santa Anita and run on the grass in the Clement Hirsch. With all due respect to those horses, it was seemingly easier than the Goodwood. But Barry's idea was that he was 2 for 2 on the synthetic, and while he might be a graded stakes horse on the grass, there was the potential that he was a superior horse on the synthetic. We were worried that nine furlongs might be short for him, but it was a great opportunity to run in a Grade 1 on synthetic."

In a thrilling stretch drive, Gitano Hernando beat favored Colonel John by a neck, with Richard's Kid another three-quarters of a length back in third.

"Obviously it was an ambitious goal," Wellman said. "We were ecstatic it all worked out."

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