10/09/2013 11:34AM

Jay Hovdey: Aotearoa provides silver lining for upset-minded


There is a rule, inscribed somewhere on a cave wall, that any horse can lose any race any time. This would seem to be one of those operating principles – reliable unpredictability – that makes a high-risk gambling enterprise like Thoroughbred racing such an evergreen attraction.

There are times, however, when the unpredictable becomes the ridiculous, and horseplayers begin looking around for the guy sticking pins in the voodoo doll, or praying to a dead chicken. Such things have occurred the past two weekends at the top of the American game.

It began with heavily favored Royal Delta losing to the younger Princess of Sylmar in the Beldame on Sept. 29. Then again, it was a very good horse race and the winner might be a champion, which is what you want to see when a monster like Royal Delta goes down.

The following day, in Oklahoma no less, West Virginia Derby and Super Derby winner Departing, the leader of the 3-year-old B-squad, finished off the board at 3-10 in the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby. It was suppose to be an easy payday for the invading favorite, and it was, as long as $24,000 for fourth makes you happy.

Six days later, the wheels really came off. Champion Wise Dan (1-2) lost in the Shadwell (insert surface here) Mile on wet Polytrack, champion Groupie Doll (1-2) failed to TCB in the TCA, and Obviously, the West’s best miler, was stunned into fourth by horses who thought they were running for second in the City of Hope Mile. Obviously was also 1-2 in the tote.

Finally, as if wild chance had not already run rampant enough, the quiet little Zuma Beach Stakes at Santa Anita last Sunday added one more to the pile when the 2-5 Diamond Bachelor, California’s consensus hope for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, was knocked off by the longest shot in the six-horse field going a mile on grass.

If nothing else, the upsets have generated the kind of pre-Breeders’ Cup conversation craved by any public sporting event, with names like No Jet Lag, Judy the Beauty, and Silver Max thrown into the mix. On the other hand, it hardly does the marquee any good for stars such as Wise Dan, Royal Delta, and Groupie Doll to lose luster on the doorstep of the Breeders’ Cup, when all three have titles to defend.

Blissfully above the fray, owner-breeder Paul Viskovich and trainer Leonard Powell will spend the next few weeks deciding where their Zuma Beach winner Aotearoa will appear next. The gelded Cal-bred is not eligible to the Breeders’ Cup program, and Viskovich would need to spend what would amount to nearly every penny of Aotearoa’s $114,000 in earnings just to run in the Juvenile Turf against horses sent to Santa Anita by the likes of Aidan O’Brien, John Gosden, Todd Pletcher, Chad Brown, Wayne Catalano, and Saeed bin Suroor. But thanks for asking.

Aotearoa (pronounce each and every vowel) translates to “long white cloud,” which is what the marking on his face looks like, as well as how the native Maoris describe their island nation of New Zealand. Viskovich is from New Zealand, which makes sense, while Powell, 37, is from Normandy, deep in the French horse country, the son of American-born journalist and racehorse breeder David Powell.

“We met at a party,” said Viskovich, who owns a company specializing in health care software. “Leonard’s neighbor was a Kiwi like me, so she thought we might have something in common. I checked his stats and liked his strike rate, and so far we’ve had some good luck.”

Their association was off to a joyous start with Majestic Diamond, imported by Viskovich from New Zealand, who paid off at 33-1 after winning an allowance race on the Hollywood turf in November of 2008. In addition to Aotearoa, Viskovich currently owns a third of Soi Phet, the ambitious former claimer who scored a Grade 1 placing while finishing third to Mucho Macho Man and Paynter in the recent Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

“His biggest advantage is being very versatile,” Powell said of Aotearoa. “He can be a handful – I think he was gelded as a foal, even before he became a yearling – but in his races, he’s like a little moped, very maneuverable. Going short or long, you can take him back as you wish and he settles right away, then go inside horses if you need to.”

Aotearoa was an impressive maiden winner sprinting at Del Mar, and now that he’s a stakes winner around two turns his back story will be grist for the hopeful. Viskovich claimed his dam, the Lil Tyler mare Madera Royal, for $25,000 out of a 2007 race at Hollywood Park.

“She broke down that day,” Viskovich said. “There was no rule then, like now, that would have voided the claim. I’d hoped to race her on for a while, but since she had some pedigree I figured what the hell, we’ll have a go at the breeding game.”

Aotearoa was Madera Royal’s third foal. She died earlier this year, at age 11, from colic.

“That was bad luck,” Viskovich said. “There’s a full sister to Aotearoa, though, so we can hope she’ll carry on for her dam.”

Raised on his parents’ farm, Powell was destined to find his way somewhere in the Thoroughbred world.

“When I was 12 years old, I came to the U.S. as an exchange student and lived in Kentucky with Dr. David Richardson, the veterinarian,” Powell said. “I loved to study pedigrees, and Nijinsky was my favorite horse. It was very special to see him at Claiborne Farm.

“That summer I also visited Nureyev at Walmac Farm. It was the year after he had broken his leg so badly. He was in his own small barn, and he had a crane to get him up and down while the leg healed. What a brave horse he was.”

Among the major stakes winners sired by Nureyev after he recovered from his life-threatening accident was Good Journey, who finished a close second to Domedriver in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Arlington Park, then later sired Aotearoa.