03/03/2009 12:00AM

Matto Mondo steps up to big time

Benoit & Associates
Despite tempting offers to sell, owner Alex Estay has held on to Chilean star Matto Mondo.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Two years ago, a 3-year-old colt and filly in Chile rose to such prominence that they attracted attention from owners throughout the world.

The filly, Cocoa Beach, won three consecutive Group 3 races and was later bought by the Maktoum family's Godolphin Racing. She has since won five stakes in Dubai and the United States, including the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park last fall. Cocoa Beach was second to Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic last fall.

The colt was Matto Mondo, who won Group 1 stakes in Chile in June and August of 2007. His story is a work in progress. Saturday, Matto Mondo makes his American Grade 1 debut in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, the richest race of his career. Matto Mondo enters the Big Cap on a two-race winning streak.

"I've had some nice horses before, but nothing like him," owner Alex Estay said. "I've always known we have had a special horse. I turned down some special offers with the sole purpose of campaigning the horse in major ranks."

That would have seemed unachievable at times in the last 18 months.

Matto Mondo arrived from Chile in late 2007 with bone chips in a knee that required surgery. He entered serious training last summer with Richard Mandella and quickly caught the trainer's attention. Mandella knew what he was looking for. He has a history of success with South American imports.

Then came Matto Mondo's U.S. debut in the Grade 3 Morvich Handicap on Santa Anita's hillside turf course last September. Matto Mondo beat one horse.

"That was a painful day," Estay said. "It was kind of embarrassing."

Matto Mondo lost his next two starts - an eighth in the Lure Stakes at Santa Anita in October and a third in an allowance race at Golden Gate Fields in November - before starting the current winning streak.

He won an optional claimer going a mile on turf here Dec. 27 and followed with the best race of his U.S. career in the Grade 3 Thunder Road Handicap at a mile on the Pro-Ride main track Feb. 7. Making his synthetic-track debut in the Thunder Road, Matto Mondo stalked the pace to early stretch and pulled away to win the one-mile race by 3 1/4 lengths.

The performance justified a nomination for the Santa Anita Handicap.

Mandella is seeking his fourth Big Cap win and first since Rock Hard Ten in 2005. He swept the first three positions in 1997 with Siphon, Sandpit, and Gentlemen, and won again in 1998 with Malek. All but Rock Hard Ten were South American imports.

Estay, 49, is a native of Chile who has lived in the United States since 1973. He is an executive with a chain of Las Vegas car dealers and has had an avid interest in racing throughout his adult life.

Estay has eight horses in training in Chile, where he travels a few times a year. Estay bought Matto Mondo before his debut after reviewing photos and the colt's pedigree - Sir Cat-Muy Euforica, by Sadlers Congress.

Matto Mondo won 4 of 6 starts in Chile in 2007, capped by a victory in the Group 1 Chilean 2000 Guineas in August.

During that time, Estay's phone began to ring with offers from different continents - Dubai, Europe, and the United States, he said.

"It was crazy," he said.

Estay declined the bids and made plans to send Matto Mondo to Mandella. After the injury and the early failures in the United States, Matto Mondo has convinced Estay there is room for more improvement.

"I'm really excited about his future," Estay said. "I think he's finally come back to his form. He's matured and he's an intelligent horse. I think he will do some neat things. I don't think we've seen the best of him."

Matto Mondo was considered for Saturday's Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf, but Mandella chose the Big Cap after reviewing the Thunder Road win. The Big Cap will be a distance test for Matto Mondo, who has not won beyond 1 1/16 miles on turf.

"He has a stride that is very unique, a change of action like a fifth or a sixth gear," Estay said. "I think we'll see more of that."

It all makes Estay happy he did not sell.

"I like money," he said. "I like the glory, too. How often can you say you have a horse in the Santa Anita Handicap with a shot?"