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Kentucky Derby: Avila playing the long game with King Guillermo

By Marcus Hersh, Daily Racing Form on

Published in Horse Racing

As a young man in Venezuela, Juan Carlos Avila, like many Venezuelan youths, had designs on becoming a professional baseball player. He tried second base, third base, and then realized the whole enterprise was a dead end.

"I tried to make myself better; it didn't work," Avila said.

Avila wound up at the racetrack, became a groom, an assistant starter, and an apprentice trainer, and in this endeavor all his work paid off, Avila rising to become one of Venezuela's best-known trainers. Now, Avila has set himself a challenge no modern American trainer has taken - winning the Kentucky Derby with a horse returning from a months-long layoff.

King Guillermo, when he lines up in the Churchill Downs starting gate Saturday, will be racing for the first time since May 2. That makes King Guillermo's a 125-day layoff, a radical outlier in recent Derby history.

When Animal Kingdom won the 2011 Derby, trainer Graham Motion was lauded for readying his horse following a 42-day layoff. Trainer Todd Pletcher fielded a torrent of layoff questions before Destin finished sixth in the 2016 Derby following a 55-day layoff. The longest Derby layoff since 1990 was the 62 days between Homeboykris's pre-Derby start and his 16th-place finish in the 2010 Derby. Most contemporary Derby starters race in April: Between 1990 and 2001, 199 out of 205 Derby runners came into the race having run the month before.

Now, if you want to look deep into the past, you'll find much different examples; Regret won the 1915 Derby after a 259-day layoff, Sir Barton the 1918 renewal following a 238-day break, but that is an apples-to-oranges comparison. The 2020 season, it might be argued, is grapefruit to oranges given the coronavirus pandemic leading to a Derby in September. But putting all that aside, the ask of King Guillermo and Avila is a gigantic one: Run 1 1/4 miles against the strongest competition the horse ever has faced while racing for the first time since King Guillermo finished a fine second behind subsequently retired Nadal 18 weeks ago in the Arkansas Derby.

 

"I never considered running him in a race before the Kentucky Derby," said Avila, who was interviewed in a three-way phone call through an interpreter. "After the Arkansas Derby, I strategized a plan to bring him to the Derby day by day. So far, everything has gone according to plan."

Avila turns 57 in September and trained in Venezuela 30 years, winning multiple training titles at La Rinconada, the country's major track. He won the Clasico del Caribe twice, with El de Chine and Ninfa del Cielo, and trained Venezuelan champion sprinter Pedro Caiman, a son of Harlan's Holiday who retired to stud undefeated in 11 starts. Early in 2018, Avila, citing security concerns, followed a long line of Venezuelan horsemen and emigrated to South Florida.

Avila won just six races in 2018, but at a breeze-up sale in March that year found a horse, Trophy Chaser, whose second-race maiden win that August produced a 96 Beyer Speed Figure and led to a start in the Grade 1 Champagne. That boosted Avila's client base, which grew to include retired Major League baseball all-star Victor Martinez, a Venezuelan native living in Florida. Martinez's request upon meeting Avila: "Find me a Kentucky Derby winner." Avila, against the odds, has given Martinez a chance.

King Guillermo, a son of Uncle Mo and Slow Sand, by Dixieland Band, went for $150,000 at a 2-year-old in training sale in April 2019.

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