06/01/2016 2:00PM

Hovdey: Illuminant provides salve for an old wound


At a key point during the stretch run of last Monday’s $300,000 Gamely Stakes at Santa Anita, Michael McCarthy’s attention became sorely divided.

“ ‘Scattered’ is a good way to describe it,” said McCarthy, whose primary concern was the forward momentum of Illuminant, the filly he trains for Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.

With a furlong to run in the 1 1/8-mile event, Illuminant and Flavien Prat were going great guns on the lead. But the field was bearing down, led by heavily favored Wekeela.

“I didn’t know where to look,” McCarthy said. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over with.”

Mercifully, the wire arrived, and Illuminant held fast to win by a length. Just like that, McCarthy was a Grade 1-winning trainer in his own right, and Illuminant had taken her place among the elite older fillies and mares of the grass division.

“I’d always thought she had the ability to bang one out like this,” McCarthy said a couple of days later. “It was a very good field, and I’m just so pleased she was able to seal the deal.”

McCarthy, 44, has been in the racing business all his adult life, and after spending a decade as one of Todd Pletcher’s top assistants, there are few places in the game where he can hide. He was at Pletcher’s side for nine championship seasons from 2004 to 2014, several spent as the keeper of the stable’s California division.

It was a good and enviable gig, and many assistant trainers have been known to stay put for the long haul. But McCarthy’s ambitions were pointed elsewhere, and California was where he wanted to plant his flag. He also knew the job was precarious when he took it.

In 2014, his first full season as a public trainer, McCarthy won six races from 30 starts and purses of about $200,000. This is the definition of working for free. In 2015, he won 10 races and more than doubled his purse total, which was admirable progress but still a hard grind.

“There are some days you feel a little bit lonely,” McCarthy said. “On Breeders’ Cup Day, Kentucky Derby Day, you’re used to being part of it, and there are a lot of fond memories. So, you get up in the morning, work hard, and maybe make some of those memories for yourself at some point.”

With the Gamely victory, McCarthy’s purse total for 2016 passed the half-million mark. And while he crafted a breakthrough memory that will last a lifetime, he also helped dull the lingering pain of a dark moment in the corner of the racing world occupied by Aron Wellman, a second-generation horse owner and president of Eclipse Thoroughbreds.

It was on Memorial Day in 2007 that Wellman awoke full of hope for the prospects of the 5-year-old gray mare Three Degrees in the Gamely, then run at Hollywood Park. At the time, Wellman was in the early days of his career developing Thoroughbred partnerships. Three Degrees, bought in Ireland, was his first serious success.

But while Three Degrees gave chase to the leaders that day, her left front ankle gave way in the stretch. Both sesamoids and the supporting ligaments were damaged beyond repair, and she was euthanized on the track.

“I think of her every time the Gamely is run, but with a horse in the race this time, it was even more the case,” Wellman said. “For Illuminant to win a Grade 1 race is special enough. For it to be the Gamely, that’s a feeling hard to describe.”

Illuminant was a $180,000 2-year-old purchase in March 2014 and went immediately to McCarthy. The ink on his shingle was barely dry.

“I’ve known Michael forever,” Wellman said. “We’re both native Southern Californians, and I knew his goal was to someday set up shop out here. Since Eclipse has a West Coast presence, we wanted it known that he would be our trainer, so we sent him three 2-year-olds, including Illuminant.”

It did not hurt that McCarthy was well acquainted with Illuminant’s sire, Quality Road, whose antics at the gate forced him to be scratched from the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic and gave him a bad-boy rap that McCarthy said was undeserved.

“To me, he was sort of a gentle giant,” McCarthy said. “Quite a bit different to be around on a day-to-day basis than the perception from that Breeders’ Cup Saturday.”

McCarthy sees just the right amount of Quality Road in Illuminant.

“She’s big like him, and she’s got a real racehorse mind,” the trainer said. “But there’s no malice in her at all. When she was at the 2-year-old sale, I think she was asked to do something she really didn’t want to do, so we gave her the break she needed.”

It took Illuminant five starts to win a maiden race, coming finally last November at Del Mar, and then six more starts to become a stakes winner in the Gamely. Along the way, McCarthy and Eclipse tried her on dirt against Taris and on grass against Tepin, which tips their high opinion of her potential.

“Michael has done a masterful job with this filly,” Wellman said. “She has been high-maintenance, and there was a real chance that at some point we’d just have to call it quits. But every time she needed to take a breath, he gave her the time. And look how it has paid off.”