12/17/2015 3:10PM

Hovdey: Mora looking forward to another shot at Derby


Leandro Mora has no trouble remembering the maiden race at Del Mar on Nov. 15 in which the towering young colt Sorryaboutnothing tipped his ability with a game second-place finish going a mile and ended up in the winner’s circle on a pretty clear-cut disqualification.

Then again, it is a minor medical miracle that Mora can remember anything at all.

Two months before, on Sept. 18, to be exact, Mora was lounging at home near Santa Anita Park when, as he describes it, “I felt like someone hit me in the head with a baseball bat.”

Mora had suffered a stroke, later described as mild but only because he was not alone at the time it happened and an emergency team was quickly on the scene. Medical science has learned that the effects of a stroke can be mitigated with prompt recognition and attention. Mora was hospitalized for five days, after which he spent another week in physical rehabilitation.

“I’m back, 100 percent,” Mora said this week after wrapping up chores at the Doug O’Neill barn. “I’m lucky my brain is still good enough that I can talk to anybody and I can still do my job, because I love what I do.

“God left me here for a reason,” Mora added. “Hopefully, it’s for the Kentucky Derby or even the Triple Crown.”

Since the stable won the 2012 Derby and the Preakness with I’ll Have Another and currently houses presumptive 2-year-old champion colt Nyquist, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the idea is not farfetched. The outfit has sent forth such stars as Lava Man, Stevie Wonderboy, Thor’s Echo, and Maryfield during Mora’s tenure as O’Neill’s top assistant.

Nyquist is currently galloping his way back to fitness at Santa Anita for a run at the 2016 classics, so in his absence, the stable will take two swings in the $350,000 Los Alamitos Futurity on Saturday with Sorryaboutnothing, owned by Fog City Stable, and Frank Conversation, who races for Paul and Zillah Reddam.

“Frank Conversation has a good chance, but the fact that he ran so good on the turf makes me think that our other horse has a better chance in this race,” Mora said. “I hope he doesn’t disappoint me.”

Of course, after what happened in September, Mora figures everything from here on is a gift. As a popular figure on the Southern California scene since the late 1970s, when he first worked as a stablehand for Hall of Famer Gary Jones, Mora’s stroke sent a shiver through the backstretch community.

“I scared myself, too,” he said. “I didn’t realize what kind of trouble I was in until the next day after it happened. But I came back. I’m on medication and will be the rest of my life. I can work, I can fly and travel. The only thing I can’t do is ride my horse. But the doctors say I might be able to eventually.”

Mora has journeyed far and wide with the O’Neill horses through the years, from Tokyo to Dubai, but he had to miss Nyquist’s victory at Keeneland out of an abundance of caution.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go back there and have a problem,” he said. “So, I watched the race at Del Mar with friends and celebrated with a glass of red wine. My doctor told me it was good for me.”

Mora also was able to stick close to the other blooming 2-year-olds in the stable, including the pair going forth in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Last year, the 1 1/16-mile event showcased Dortmund, Firing Line, and Mr. Z, all three going on to be stakes winners as 3-year-olds of 2015.

One week after Nyquist won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Sorryaboutnothing made his debut in a maiden sprint at Del Mar. He was fourth, then came right back eight days later in his maiden mile.

“I was more than a little bit impressed,” Mora said. “That was his first time going two turns, and it was not that many days since his first start. I know that is unusual, but he told us he could do it. It’s like us when we were young. We could play two games the same day and still be going. Right now, though, I could only play a quarter of one.”

After stalking the pace, Sorryaboutnothing was making a steady run when the leader, Urlacher, bore out and forced the O’Neill colt to check. The margin at the end was a neck.

“He always told us he wanted to go two turns,” Mora said. “He’s nearly 17 hands, almost as tall as Zenyatta. And since he is bred to go two turns, we train him a little different. He gets long gallops, not fast. That’s our style.”

Sorryaboutnothing is by Repent and out of a Royal Chapel mare. The female family is nothing to write home about, and Louisiana Derby winner Repent was standing for $1,000 in Florida before he was sold last year to a farm in Trinidad. Clearly, the $220,000 paid for Sorryaboutnothing last June at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. auction of 2-year-olds in training was based on what the colt promised as an individual.

“He’s got a great mind, too,” Mora said. “I don’t want to compare him to Nyquist because Nyquist is the champ. But he’s coming along like Nyquist did, and we’re trying to treat him like Nyquist.”