04/06/2011 12:15PM

Santa Anita Derby favorite led by improbable connections

Benoit & Associates
Myung Kwon Cho and his 17-year-old-son, Raxon Cho, talk with jockey Alonso Quinonez.

Myung Kwon Cho had been in the United States for 10 years when his curiosity finally got the best of him and he announced to his wife, Lydia, “Let’s go to the races.”

Horse races, that is, Santa Anita style, and a beautiful day it turned out to be, that sparkling Saturday morning in April 1988. Only problem was, the Chos arrived a bit late, and wherever they tried to penetrate the main racetrack parking lot they were turned away for lack of space. Oh well, Cho thought, there’s always another day.

“It was later that I figured out it was derby day,” Cho said. “When Lukas won the race with the filly.”

Cho was hardly discouraged. Before too long he was making it a habit of going to the races, after which he began to dabble in racehorse ownership. The story could have ended there, with a few winning experiences to spice up the tale, and Cho would have joined the thousands upon thousands of racing fans who tried to live the dream inside the ropes as owners. In Cho’s case, though, events have taken a radically different turn.

UPDATE: Hairline fracture found Thursday knocks Premier Pegasus off Derby trail

On April 9, some 23 years after that first aborted trip to Santa Anita Park, the son of a North Korean photographer will be arriving in plenty of time to send forth the highly regarded Premier Pegasus as the colt attempts to join Swaps, Majestic Prince, Affirmed, Snow Chief, Sunday Silence, A.P. Indy, Point Given, and that Wayne Lukas filly, Winning Colors, as winners of the Santa Anita Derby.

A big race in the local Derby would propel Premier Pegasus into the thick of the conversation for the Kentucky Derby one month hence − Uncle Mo or no Uncle Mo. The Cho colt already was listed fifth on the March 24 update of Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch top 20 and could be found solidly in the top 10 of just about every other legitimate Derby poll.

Such was the power of the impression left by Premier Pegasus after he crushed the field in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes on March 12 at Santa Anita by nearly eight cruising lengths. Those trailing him that day included Norfolk Stakes winner Jaycito and Hollywood Futurity winner Comma to the Top, good enough company to make a serious impact in a final clocking fast enough at least give the speed-figure tribe data on which they could happily chew.

The San Felipe also marked the fourth win in five starts for Premier Pegasus, in a classically shaped career that started with victories at 5 1/2, six, and seven furlongs at age 2. Blinkers were removed from Premier Pegasus for the San Felipe, and he responded by running the last part of the race faster than the first, drawing off as if to suggest his pedigree – by a Derby winner out of a daughter of a Preakness winner – is just now coming to a boil.

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Before running out to snag the best possible price in Vegas, however, and ordering all that Premier Pegasus gear, a few minor details should be addressed. This is not, in the common currency, a contender’s profile that would remind anyone of the formula represented by such establishment figures as Pletcher, Zito, Baffert, Lukas, and their Derby-hungry patrons. Consider:

* Cho, the proud owner and breeder of Premier Pegasus, is also the trainer of record who must, by necessity, spend most mornings at his Comak Trading offices near downtown Los Angeles, home to Cho’s privately held wholesale women’s and children’s apparel company.

* Cho therefore must entrust his handful of horses at Santa Anita to Maria Ayala, a native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, whose status as a Hispanic female assistant trainer on a major circuit places her in one of the game’s smallest demographics.

* Cho’s chief adviser and confidant is his 17-year-old son, Raxon Cho, a lacrosse star at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, near the family’s home in the upscale private community of Rolling Hills. By his own admission, Raxon has been a racing buff less than three years.

* Cho’s jockey since the colt’s first race has been Alonso Quinonez, a youngish (27), stylish (picture a Latin Gary Stevens) star on the rise who has never appeared in a Triple Crown race and who this winter suffered through a baffling, monthlong losing streak before it was snapped by Premier Pegasus in the San Felipe. Quinonez, represented by veteran Vince DeGregory, has since righted the ship and is climbing again in the tough standings.

Horse racing accommodates such an unconventional package, and the Kentucky Derby trail is particularly susceptible to budding fairy tales. In 1992, owner-trainer Shelley Riley, a horse-wise housewife from Northern California, came within a length of winning the Derby with her $7,500 yearling Casual Lies. Two years ago it was the $20,000 claim General Quarters who took his owner-trainer, retired high school principal Tom McCarthy, to the Derby show after winning the Blue Grass Stakes. And for those still unconvinced that Derby glory can strike from the strangest possible angles, please refer to either Canonero II, the Venezuelan wonder horse of 1971, or to the more contemporary Mine That Bird, whose obscure New Mexico connections stunned the sporting world in 2008.

As for the ultimate in precedents, the only person to breed, own, and train a Derby winner was Jack Price, who famously turned the trick with the blue-collar Carry Back in 1961.

By such standards, Myung Kwon Cho and Premier Pegasus are almost conventional. The colt is a half-brother to Cho’s Street Hero, a 2-year-old of 2008 when he won the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita and finished a close third to Midshipman in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Street Hero emerged from the Juvenile with a damaged knee and now stands at the Vinery, but Ayala contends no one should be surprised that the younger sibling has picked up where the older one left off.

“Very much alike,” she said one recent morning at Santa Anita, where Premier Pegasus had just completed a vigorous 1 1/2-mile gallop around the training track.

“Good size, not too big, and very smart,” Ayala said. “You see the way he galloped? Gallop like that, you don’t need to be working fast. The way he moves − incredible.”

Ayala lapsed into her native Spanish for the adjective, which comes to mind every time she considers the colt. As for working fast, Premier Pegasus can throw a bullet whenever he wants, which he did in his last move before the San Felipe, five-eighths in 57 and change. Cho said he is still a little embarrassed about the showy display.

“I was taking blinkers off for that race and worked him that day without blinkers,” Cho said. “The rider thought he might be a little bit lazy because of that. You can see he wasn’t.”

Predictably, the work, the race, and subsequent fanfare put Premier Pegasus in play as Triple Crown sale bait. Cho got offers.

“One was for six million,” he said. “But they wanted the mare, too. No way.”

“The mare” is Cho’s pearl of great price, Squall Linda, a daughter of Summer Squall foaled in 1996 and purchased at Keeneland the following year by Cho for $62,000, just as Hurricane Linda raged off the coast of Mexico.

“My English is not that good,” Cho said. “When I learned that ‘squall’ was another word for a hurricane, I thought because she was by Summer Squall it would be a good name.”

Root around Squall Linda’s female family and up jump names like Trojan Bronze, Ambiorix, and Turn-to, all colts known for dealing easily with a route of ground. Mating the mare to Fusaichi Pegasus, the in-hand winner of the 2000 Kentucky Derby, did nothing to dilute the genes.

“I like to train for distance,” Cho said as he watched Premier Pegasus gallop. “He’s a very smart colt. He will figure out what you are doing with him pretty quick. So I tell Maria to start him off at different poles so he doesn’t get used to just one thing. But look how he runs − so soft, not hitting the ground but going over it, everything going forward.”

Cho was granted his California trainer’s license some 20 years ago having stipulated that he would be responsible only for horses he owned.

“Even so, he’s got to pass the same examinations as any applicant for the license,” said Santa Anita steward Tom Ward. “As for handling his business, we never really hear of any problems. I truly can’t remember the last time we had to talk with him about anything.”

These days, if you want to talk with Mr. Cho, as he is known around the racetrack, you also will get his son Raxon, one of Cho’s two children with his wife, Lydia (he has two by a previous marriage). At the track they have become an inseparable pair.

“After the San Felipe, someone in the press asked my dad why he took the blinkers off the colt,” Raxon said. “He told them to ask me, that I could explain, so it got reported that I was his interpreter. That’s funny. I can say ‘hello’ in Korean, but that’s all.”

It is Raxon, though, who huddles nightly with his father over the day’s horse activity, and it was Raxon who gave Street Hero his name, along with those of Premier Pegasus and Riveting Reason, another son of Fusaichi Pegasus who finished a close second in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes earlier in the Santa Anita meet. He is now turned out with a minor injury.

“I know my dad would like to spend more time at the track with the horses,” Raxon said. “He still has his business to run, but I know he thinks about them all the time.

“I really didn’t pay all that much attention to racing until Street Hero came along,” he said. “That’s when I got really interested and started bringing friends to the races.”

Now Raxon Cho is becoming well versed in pedigrees and keeps abreast of Kentucky Derby developments. He is already looking forward to possible trips East with his father and their colt, and during the trips he will also try to visit potential colleges that tap into his passions for both business and lacrosse.

“Maryland is a huge lacrosse country,” Raxon said, in early anticipation of a Preakness. “And my school is good about those things. As long as I keep current on my work I can take any trips with the horse and my dad.”

The father beams at such enthusiasms.

“He is more like a friend than a son,” Cho said. “I trust his advice. I remember, when he was little, my first time leaving home was to run a filly in the Breeders’ Cup at Woodbine. Before I left, he’d sleep with his mother all the time. When I got home, he only wanted to sleep with me.”

Cho came back from the 1996 Breeders’ Cup having finished third to Storm Song in the Juvenile Fillies with Critical Factor, by Star de Naskra. She was 82-1.

The price fits comfortably with Cho’s first brush with attention in the 1990 Derby, in which he finished fourth with his $40,000 claim Video Ranger, part of the 65-1 mutuel field. Likewise there was his 40-1 shot Nationalore in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Hollywood Park, beaten a neck for second behind the winner, Favorite Trick. For that matter, Premier Pegasus was 44-1 when he cracked first time out at Del Mar last summer. When will they start to believe this guy Cho? Maria Ayala just laughed.

“Julio Canani helped us saddle him that day at Del Mar,” she said, referring to the three-time Breeders’ Cup winner and full-time racetrack character. “After he saddled, Julio asked me, ‘Who do you think is gonna win this?’ I said, ‘Me!’ He said, ‘No, really.’ I said, ‘Yes. Me!’ So what did he bet? Nothing. After the race he said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I said I did, two times. He said, ‘Yes, but you were smiling. I didn’t think you were serious.’ ”

The modern-day racing adventures of Myung Kwon Cho bookend an early life that was defined by war. Born in a Korea occupied by the Japanese during the depths of World War II, Cho and his family were among the very few with a decent quality of life.

“My father was a photographer,” Cho said. “He was first in Korea to use color photography. The Japanese liked him for that. They gave him a lot of business, so we always had some money and food.”

The Cho family lived in what became Communist-controlled North Korea when the war ended and the nation was divided.

“My father did not like the Communists and wanted to move south, but it was not easy,” Cho said. “He had to leave all his equipment behind. Then the Korean War started − one war to another one − and he never had the money to replace all his best equipment. He still took pictures − they needed a lot of ID photos during the war − but it was not the same.”

Cho has nothing but fond memories of the American soldiers who fought in Korea during the 1950-53 conflict. He particularly recalls the Red Cross box containing baseball gloves, bat, and ball that arrived at his school, and he ended up playing a pretty good second base.

“My dream was that I wanted to come to the United States, so finally that’s what I did,” Cho said. “Everybody has an American dream, and that was mine.”

Cho dates his arrival in the U.S. to the memorable Triple Crown spring of 1978, when Affirmed and Alydar thrilled the sporting world. As racing memories go, that is a pretty high bar. But then, Cho’s life − which he describes as “eventful” − has rarely shirked from rolling the dice.

“The Santa Anita Derby is a very big race,” Cho said. “It’s hard to even think about winning it. But then I look at my colt, and I let myself think maybe it could happen.”

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