10/18/2011 2:10PM

Santa Anita: Ultimate Eagle can give his owner and trainer another highlight

Shigeki Kikkawa
Ultimate Eagle, with Martin Pedroza riding, wins the Oak Tree Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The standard has been set – and it’s a high one.

Owner B.J. Wright and trainer Mike Pender need a Grade 1 win in November to keep pace with the career milestones they achieved as a team earlier this month.

On Oct. 8, Jeranimo won the Grade 2 Oak Tree Mile at Santa Anita, a prep for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. A week later, their Ultimate Eagle pulled a 34-1 upset in the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby. He is bound for the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at Hollywood Park on Nov. 27.

Pender and Wright had never had a week like that. “That was a first,” Pender said on Sunday. “Hopefully, there is more to come.”

In between those wins, Wright and Pender were thinking about 2012. They essentially bought a first-round draft choice for the juvenile races next year with the acquisition of an Afleet Alex colt for $100,000 at the Barretts October yearling sale on Oct. 11. The Afleet Alex colt and another colt shared the role of sale-topper.

Wright has a partner on the yearling colt in Brian Cunningham, a former student of Pender’s when the 45-year-old trainer was teaching American history and English at a private school in La Canada, Calif., not far from Santa Anita, in the 1990’s.

In the early 2000’s, Pender left his teaching position and began forming ownership partnerships for Thoroughbreds. A lifelong racing fan, he gravitated toward training and had his first winner at Los Alamitos, in February 2005. Pender had his first winner on the Southern California major circuit in November of that year.

Wright, 73, supported Pender early in his training career. Polonius, owned by Wright, gave Pender his first stakes win in the Pasadena Stakes in March 2008. Their relationship goes back three decades, to the flag football fields of nearby Glendale, Calif. Pender played on a team with Wright’s son.

Jeranimo will be Pender and Wright’s first starter in a Breeders’ Cup race. Although the race will feature some notable Europeans, such as three-time defending champion Goldikova, and the American-based Gio Ponti, Pender says they are ready to take a chance.

“He’s coming into the race in the right way,” Pender said of Jeranimo

Jeranimo is a three-time stakes winner, including the Grade 2 Strub Stakes in early 2010. To have Ultimate Eagle winning stakes, and even racing, surprises both Wright and Pender. In the summer of 2010, when Ultimate Eagle was 2, he suffered a severe bout of colic that nearly cost him his life, Pender said.

There was talk among veterinarians that Ultimate Eagle would have to be euthanized, but Pender wanted to try to save the colt’s life. He was rushed to a clinic in Ventura, Calif., and slowly recovered. “We are very proud that he’s alive,” Wright said after the Oak Tree Derby.

As a result, Ultimate Eagle did not start at 2, and made his debut during the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting earlier this year, losing his first three races on the synthetic main track. Tried on turf at Del Mar, he blossomed, winning a maiden race and an optional claimer in consecutive starts.

Those victories gave Wright and Pender confidence to try Ultimate Eagle in the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby. Ridden by Martin Pedroza, Ultimate Eagle led throughout and held off a late run from the French invader Venomous to win by a half-length.

“It’s the first derby I’ve ever won,” Wright said in the winner’s circle last Saturday. “To be totally honest, it’s the training job that Mike did.”

The Oak Tree Derby was run over 1 1/8 miles on turf, while the Hollywood Derby is run over 1 1/4 miles. Ultimate Eagle has never started over 1 1/4 miles, but the distance is not a major concern for Pender.

“When I work him, I work him behind other horses,” Pender said. “He can accelerate and then back off. I want to keep him against 3-year-olds.”

Such a move may be key to giving Ultimate Eagle his best chance in the Hollywood Derby, and perhaps giving Wright and Pender yet another milestone.