04/27/2017 9:36AM

Paradise Woods a behind-the-scenes star from Day 1

Email
Emily Shields
Paradise Woods paid $18.20 for winning the Santa Anita Oaks.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Paradise Woods jumped up from out of nowhere, so it seemed.

Yet overnight sensations take longer than that, even if Paradise Woods caught most everyone by surprise, paying $18.20 when she trounced her rivals in the Santa Anita Oaks by nearly 12 lengths in just the third start of her career.

“You don’t plan that,” trainer Richard Mandella said.

But you do plan. And the blueprint Paradise Woods followed, from nowhere to Kentucky Oaks favoritism, was an early design. It had to be. Farm hands, owners, trainers, and jockeys considered Paradise Woods a potential star from the day she was foaled.

“As a foal, she had that look about her,” said Sergio de Sousa, managing partner at Hidden Brook Farm in Paris, Ky., where she was foaled. He said Paradise Woods “was strong, confident, and correct.”

“She was a little different than the others,” de Sousa said. “Sometimes a horse with an imposing personality, you walk by and you just notice. And you say, ‘Who is that?’

Paradise Woods is a daughter of first-crop sire Union Rags. She was bred by the late Herman Sarkowsky, the entrepreneur and owner who also bred champion 2-year-old filly Phone Chatter and Grade 1 winners Dixie Union and Mr. Greeley.

Paradise Woods was foaled April 7, 2014, at which time Sarkowsky, 88, was putting his affairs in order.

 

“He knew it was happening,” de Sousa said. “But he had it all mapped out. I don’t know if he knew she would get to the Oaks or not.”

Sarkowsky was liquidating, selling his racing stock. After input from de Sousa and his longtime trainer, Mandella, Sarkowsky did not sell Paradise Woods.

“He was a little more interested in her than any others the last years,” Mandella said. “He asked me to look at her before we knew that he was dying. He might have known, but I didn’t.”

Mandella was struck. He said Paradise Woods “was gorgeous, a nicely conformed, classy-looking filly.”

The question was whom she would race for after Sarkowsky died.

Marty Wygod, the owner and businessman, was a close friend and partner with Sarkowsky for nearly 40 years. Their affluence grew through business; their success as racing partners was limited primarily to Pirate’s Glow and Dixie Chatter.

Wygod recalled late 2014, when Sarkowsky’s health was in decline: “That was a tough time. He was pretty sick, but he was high on [Paradise Woods]. He thought she was the best he had, and he wanted me to have half of her and race her in his name and mine.”

Before he died, Sarkowsky transferred a 50 percent ownership stake in Paradise Woods to Wygod.

Wygod’s voice cracks at the memory: “It was a gift. It was a token of friendship. He was sick, but he knew what he was doing. We loved horses together, and it meant a lot.”

Sarkowsky only asked that Paradise Woods carry his colors – black and orange-blocked, black sleeve, and white cap. Wygod was fine with that. He’d had plenty success with his own Grade 1 fillies Exotic Wood, Sweet Catomine, and Life Is Sweet. Wygod’s co-owner in Paradise Woods is Sarkowsky’s son Steven.

Herman Sarkowsky was 89 when he died on Nov. 2, 2014, at which time Paradise Woods was an unraced weanling with pedigree, looks, and personality. She already was acting the boss, according to de Sousa.

“She knew we worked for her,” he said, adding what he believed was the filly’s implied directive: “You guys are here for me, don’t forget that.”

Paradise Woods moved to Blackwood Stables in Versailles, Ky., to be broken as a yearling in the summer of 2015.

“She was one of the tougher nuts to crack,” farm co-owner Matt Hogan said. “She was opinionated, is one way to put it.”

It came with her pedigree. She was produced by Wild Forest, an unraced daughter of the Storm Cat stallion Forest Wildcat. Wild Forest’s best previous foal was the turf sprinter Forest Chatter.

“With Forest Wildcat, going back to Storm Cat, you can get a bit of fire,” Hogan said.

“I’m a sucker for a filly with attitude, and she sure as hell had plenty of it. But she just needed to figure things out – nothing terrible, a bit hard-headed and a bit stubborn. You had to make her feel like everything was her idea.”

The Blackwood staff took extra time with Paradise Woods, who finally caught on. She was not as big or gangly as other Union Rags progeny.

“She didn’t have that big, lanky physique,” Hogan said. “She was strong and robust, and athletic. The ones that tend to stand out are ones that break the mold. She was made a little bit differently, an outlier.”

Could she run? She would answer the question in Southern California.

Paradise Woods arrived at the San Luis Rey Downs training center in late 2015, to be trained by Cliff Sise before going to Mandella. From the time she arrived, Sise said, “everybody loved her.”

“I told Marty [Wygod], this is your best,” Sise said.

But her development stalled as a 2-year-old in 2016.

“She went through a period where she lost weight, not horrible, just not what you wanted,” Sise said.

He recommended turning her out for two months at Wygod’s River Edge Farm in central California. She came back to Sise in early fall.

“When she came back, it was like, wow!” Sise said. “I’ve never seen a horse grow four inches in 60 days. We all thought she was going to be a freak. She had a great attitude and a stride like a good horse – long but athletic. She was perfect. In early [team] works as a 2-year-old, we always said she could go backwards and outdo these.”

Paradise Woods had four published works at San Luis Rey and was sent to Mandella at Santa Anita in November.

“I let her breeze and said, ‘Whoa, this is a freak,’ ” Mandella said. “It wasn’t just me. Everybody that watched could see it. I found out when the Triple Crown nominations were due and told Wygod, ‘I’m putting her in.’ Kind of crazy, isn’t it?”

Yes, it was nuts to nominate an unraced filly to the Triple Crown. Mandella is typically conservative. Besides, by the time Paradise Woods was ready to debut in late January, the talk of Santa Anita was another filly from the same crop, Unique Bella.

“I was aware of [Unique Bella], but I thought [Paradise Woods] was as good as any filly,” Mandella said. “She’d done enough to make me think she could beat anything in the barn.”

Paradise Woods debuted Jan. 26. Mandella was confident, cocky. But to his surprise, Paradise Woods finished second, beaten 3 3/4 lengths by Delitefull Lady.

“I really thought she could beat anybody,” he said. “She turned for home, and I thought, ‘Hah! They will never see her.’ And then she put her head up, and that other filly beat her. I was shell-shocked.”

“Me, too,” jockey Flavien Prat said. “I worked her three or four times and was expecting so much. She’s a tall filly, real athletic, so I was disappointed. But you have to remind yourself it was her first out. So many things can happen.”

Something did happen – Paradise Woods displaced her soft palate. Mandella added a tongue tie next out and instructed Prat to take her back.

“She did everything right,” Prat said. “She sat behind the pace and took the dirt well.”

She won by more than four lengths.

It was a glimpse of her raw talent, yet Mandella said “it wouldn’t be fair” to start the maiden winner Paradise Woods against stakes winner Unique Bella in the Santa Anita Oaks on April 8. He targeted the Santa Paula Stakes, a minor sprint, one day later. Then the news broke: Unique Bella was out with sore shins.

Mandella said: “When I found out the other filly wasn’t going, I thought, ‘Well, the rest of them are nice fillies. But I think mine is better.’ ”

Mandella entered Paradise Woods in the Oaks. Prat had an idea how the Santa Anita Oaks might unfold.

“I was the only speed in the race, coming from a sprint, so I figured if she breaks well, I’m gonna go,” he said.

Paradise Woods broke well.

“As soon as she made the lead, she relaxed,” Prat said. “She was just cruising all the way.”

Turning for home, he asked her to run, and she was gone. Prat glanced to his left at the large video screen and saw they were in front by 10 lengths.

“I said, ‘Well, I better stop riding.’ ”

The official margin: 11 3/4 lengths, the biggest blowout in Santa Anita Oaks history. She earned a sky-high 107 Beyer Speed Figure.

It took three years to become an overnight sensation and the favorite for the Kentucky Oaks next Friday at Churchill Downs.

Paradise Woods seemed to jump up from out of nowhere, but maybe everyone was right – she was a star from the day she was foaled.

:: Enjoy news and analysis from DRF? Get handicapping analysis, real-time coverage, special reports, and charts. Unlock access with DRF Plus.