04/01/2015 2:01PM

A racetrack lifer, Sise has chance of a lifetime

Benoit & Associates
Prospect Park (left) finishes second to Dortmund in the San Felipe Stakes. He will try to turn the tables in the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The first time Cliff Sise Jr. sat on a horse, it flipped over on him. Sise was 6. The horse was a Shetland pony. The second time Sise sat on a horse, in a neighbor’s backyard one year later, he rode right into a clothesline and was knocked off.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, Sise wanted to be a jockey. He gave that up after four years because he grew too big, but his passion for horses never wavered. He was raised not far from Santa Anita. His mom was best friends with Sally Jordan, the wife of trainer Jimmy Jordan. He ran around with the children of trainer Bill Molter. He was hooked.

“I just had a love of horses,” Sise said Wednesday at Santa Anita.

Now, decades later, Sise stands a very good chance of winning the Santa Anita Derby and having a prominent starter in the Kentucky Derby. His hopes ride on Prospect Park, who finished second to the unbeaten Dortmund in last month’s San Felipe Stakes and is set for a rematch Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Derby, the last local prep for the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

Unlike Dortmund, Prospect Park was slow to develop, but he’s made significant progress at this meet. He beat maidens in his fourth lifetime start Dec. 27, crushed first-level allowance foes Jan. 30, then was beaten just 1 1/4 lengths by Dortmund in the San Felipe while earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 102.

:: DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Kentucky Derby: Who's hot, who's not

“His best strides were his last five strides,” Sise said. “And his works have been unbelievable. His last work at San Luis Rey Downs was unbelievable, and his work here was really good. He did it the right way.

“He’s just getting it now. He’s getting it at the right time.”

Sise said that Pam and Marty Wygod, who bred and own Prospect Park, “are very patient,” and that allowed him to let Prospect Park develop without being pushed.

Sise, 63, is based at San Luis Rey Downs, a training center in the northeast portion of San Diego County, about a half-hour from his home in Rancho Santa Fe. He keeps a couple of stalls at Santa Anita for horses who come in to race but otherwise is at San Luis Rey Downs, where he has approximately 30 horses. The majority of those horses are owned by the Wygods.

Sise has trained for the Wygods for years. Their best horse together was the sprinter Idiot Proof, who gave Sise the only Grade 1 win of his career when he captured the Ancient Title in 2007. Sise never has won a Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup race, with his closest finish a second in the 1996 BC Sprint with Paying Dues. Sise got a bit of notoriety on the Derby trail last year because he had been one of the trainers of Lucky Pulpit, now best known as the sire of California Chrome.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

Earlier this decade, Sise left the track to train at Rancho Paseana, which was owned by Jenny Craig. One of his duties there was breaking the young horses owned by the Wygods, including Shared Belief, who was bred by the Wygods but sold privately after his debut. Sise had a brief training adventure in Saudi Arabia in 2013 before setting up shop at San Luis Rey Downs in January 2014 while backed by the Wygods and another Rancho Santa Fe resident, Ted Aroney.

As a result, Sise has been hands-on with Prospect Park since well before he made his debut last July at Del Mar. Prospect Park, a son of Tapit, has gotten smarter, and stronger, with every race.

“If you put a lip chain on him, he’s easy,” Sise said, laughing. “He’s all man.”

Sise said that the other morning, when trainer Julio Canani jogged a couple of his runners down the shed row, Prospect Park “wanted to breed ’em all.”

“He’s not bad, but he’s not a pet,” Sise said. “You can’t pet him. He likes to play. It’s a game to him.”

On Wednesday morning, Prospect Park was calm before going out for a jog. But as he came back around at the end of his exercise, he was starting to get keyed up, looking to get away from the pony, to do more than merely jog. He’ll get that chance Saturday. By the looks of things, he’s ready.