03/22/2013 3:00PM

Jay Hovdey: Mr. Cardoza goes to New Mexico


The last time Dennis Cardoza found himself anywhere near Sunland Park was on Dec. 22, 1984, when the Terrapins of his University of Maryland alma mater were staging the greatest comeback in the history of the Sun Bowl in El Paso. Down 21-zip to Tennessee at the half, the Terps scored 22 unanswered points, gave up a 100-yard touchdown runback, then clawed out another TD in the waning minutes to win the game, 28-27.

Cardoza hopes to tap into that Sun Bowl karma from long ago when he goes back to the border region on Sunday to watch his talented 3-year-old Shakin It Up carry David Flores and a whole lot of high hopes in the $800,000 Sunland Derby, just across the New Mexico state line. Cardoza owns Shakin It Up in partnership with the colt’s breeder, Mike Pegram, which means Bob Baffert does the training.

The Pegram-Baffert combination clicked at Sunland in 2006 when Wanna Runner took the race. Back then the race was flying below the national radar, with a huge, casino-fueled purse but no graded status. That all changed in 2010 with ranking as a Grade 3 event, thanks in large part to Mine That Bird, who played dumb finishing fourth in the 2008 Sunland Derby before going on to win the Kentucky Derby and give Rachel Alexandra a run for her money in the Preakness.

The grade of a race means exactly squat these days with the new Derby points system in place, leaving the Sunland Derby, run since 2003, every bit as significant as traditional events like the Fountain of Youth, the San Felipe, and the Gotham. Baffert also has Pegram’s Govenor Charlie in the race while Todd Pletcher will be represented by Abraham. Doug O’Neill, a winner of two Sunland Derbies, will run Mudflats, and Jeff Bonde, who won the race with Twice the Appeal, starts Saint Prado.

“I’ve been wearing out my computer staring at the past performances almost all afternoon,” Cardoza said this week from his office in Maryland. “I know the horse is doing well, and Bob’s a great trainer. I like our chances but I also respect all the other entrants.”

If that sounds like a politician it’s because that is what Cardoza has been for a large chunk of his professional life. Born in Merced, in the heart of California’s Central Valley, Cardoza went from business owner to city council to the State Assembly, from 1996-2002, before his election to the U.S. Congress.

Cardoza spent five terms in Congress but somehow managed not to get rich beyond his wildest dreams. When his district was redrawn for the 2012 elections he chose not to run rather than face his Democratic colleague Jim Costa. Cardoza resigned his seat in August of 2012, citing financial responsibilities to his family, and joined the law firm of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

More to the point, Cardoza also accepted a seat on the board of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, of which Pegram is chairman. This puts him in the thick of all sorts of hot issues, which include the pricing of the betting product, the regulation of raceday medication, and the closing of Hollywood Park and its downstream impact on stabling and racing dates.

“The thing the industry needs most is consensus, and it’s the thing it probably lacks the most,” Cardoza said. “The politics of horse racing are every bit and more challenging than the politics of Congress, because of the very entrenched interests that various folks have.”

This was woefully depressing to hear, considering the fact that Cardoza went from a leadership position in the majority Democratic party during the 110th and 111th Congresses to being a member of a virtually neutered Democratic minority during the 112th Congress of the past two years.

“The 112th Congress worked hard on just one thing,” wrote David Horsey at The Los Angeles Times. “Competing to be known as the most worthless, incompetent, do-nothing gathering of lawmakers in the nation’s history.”

The virulent partisan atmosphere took its toll on a moderate like Cardoza.

“We were pretty upset when 68 of our Democratic colleagues lost in 2010, mostly from the political middle, most of them hard-working folks who were trying to find solutions,” said Cardoza, who counted himself among a shrinking breed of centrist Blue Dog Democrats.

“When I was in the majority I literally had no time,” Cardoza said. “I’d have four or five meetings scheduled at one time and would try to shuttle between all of them. In the minority it felt like sometimes your phone didn’t ring all day.”

Pin a rose on Cardoza if he can work any kind of consensus magic on the California Thoroughbred industry. At the very least he is inspired by an abiding affection for the sport, dating back to the days during the Fresno Fair when he followed the races with his mother.

Cardoza likes to tell the story of the local dairy that would deliver the entries along with the milk in a contest to pick winners. One winner was worth a stick of butter, two maybe an extra quart of milk. Sweep the card and you’d get dairy products free for a year.

“We didn’t do very well – a stick of butter once or twice,” Cardoza said. “But we sure had fun doing it.”

Now 53 and a father of three, Cardoza resists the idea that horse racing needs a demographic makeover.

“It’s been called an ‘aging’ sport since I was 18 going to Bowie Racetrack with my friends from the University of Maryland,” he said. “I had a girlfriend who lived in Bowie. If I won at the racetrack we went out to dinner. If I lost we had dinner with her parents. Even though her parents were really nice folks, I worked very hard on my handicapping. And I think I was a better handicapper then than I am now, out of necessity. If I lost five bucks then it was a tragedy.”

An inheritance from his mother allowed Cardoza to fulfill a lifelong dream and buy a few horses, which he has raced in California and Maryland. Shakin It Up, a son of Midnight Lute, gave him his first stakes victory in Santa Anita’s San Vicente on Feb. 17.

“This will be a very emotional day on Sunday, just like the San Vicente,” Cardoza added. “I just hope I’m as lucky this time as I was the last time I was in El Paso.”