11/29/2011 2:52PM

Hollywood: Wright, Pender call winning plays

Benoit & Associates
Jeranimo, with Garrett Gomez riding, wins the Citation.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – B.J. Wright’s memory of a star quarterback on a Pop Warner football team he coached years ago paid off with a pair of touchdowns over the weekend, when Wright and that quarterback, better known now as trainer Mike Pender, combined to win the Hollywood Derby with Ultimate Eagle and the Citation Handicap with Jeranimo at Hollywood Park.

Pender, now 45, had just a couple of horses in his barn when Wright sought him out at Santa Anita five years ago, impressed with the work Pender had done with a cheap horse. The first horse Wright sent him, Pender recalled, was a “backwards, crazed” horse, but he got him to the winner’s circle, after which Wright said, “Let’s get after it.”

They buy mid-priced horses who frequently overachieve. Ultimate Eagle, for instance, cost just $70,000 at a 2-year-old in training sale in Ocala, Fla., in April 2010. The Hollywood Derby was his fourth straight win, all since moving to turf, adding blinkers, and switching to jockey Martin Pedroza.

“This is undoubtedly the best horse I’ve ever ridden,” said Pedroza, who won the 1989 Santa Anita Handicap with Martial Law. “I thought Martial Law was, but this horse is better. He’s a younger version.”

Ultimate Eagle did not make his debut until April. In June 2010, he had such a bad case of colic that he was “basically pronounced dead on the table,” Pender said.

“Somehow, by an act of God, he was brought back to life,” Pender said.

Though Ultimate Eagle has risen to prominence on the turf, Pender said he will get a chance to race on dirt this winter at Santa Anita, with the Strub Stakes the first major objective. Ultimate Eagle made his first three starts on Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, finishing third, third, and fifth in maiden races.

“He’s actually training so much better on dirt,” said Pender, for whom the Hollywood Derby was his first Grade 1 win. “The first chance I’ve had to train him on dirt has been at Santa Anita over the past couple of months, and he’s been something spectacular.”

As, apparently, was Pender as a 10-year-old Pop Warner quarterback.

“We were undefeated,” he recalled.

And he left a lasting impression on his coach, one that resulted in a serendipitous meeting three decades later at the racetrack.

Jeranimo now getting his break

Pender had no intention of running Jeranimo soon after his seventh-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, but the horse was doing so well in the weeks after the race that Pender decided to trust his gut and go in the Citation.

Now, though, Jeranimo will get that intended vacation before racing again during the winter at Santa Anita.

“I promised after his last race he was going to get 60 days, and here I was running him back in 21,” Pender said. “He’ll get 60 days now.”