Sitting in the stands of the Santa Anita Race Track on a warm June morning flanked by his lead trainer, Leandro Mora watched with joyous belief a young thoroughbred, whom he believes to be the next Kentucky Derby winner.
“Nyquist took us to the Kentucky Derby. He did it all and I think this horse might take us to Kentucky,” Mora said exuberantly.
Mora, a Glendora resident, is the assistant trainer to Doug O’Neill, thoroughbred trainer for Nyquist, who achieved notoriety in May for a win at the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby at the Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.
Nyquist’s win at the Kentucky Derby extended his undefeated record until a loss at the Preakness Stakes when after a 3rd place finish, a fever and high leukocyte count sidelined the three-year-old thoroughbred.
Nyquist finished with a 9: 8-0-1 record.
Mora, who grew up in Tecalitlan in Jalisco, Mexico, has been a trainer in horse racing since 1977, working his way up from being a hot walker in Del Mar. Hot walkers are the grooms that walk horses after a workout to help them cool down.
Winning what many consider the most important race in the world not only once, but twice was a true blessing for Mora.
“When I got licensed, I started looking around and thought ‘it’s not easy to get clients.’ So instead, I started working under somebody else. I enjoy doing that,” Mora said.
Mora has been training under O’Neill since 2001.
Team O’Neill previously won the Kentucky Derby in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and has trained other famous thoroughbreds, such as Lava Man, Stevie Wonderboy, Thor’s Echo and Maryfield.
Mora and his partner, Giselle Wilson, have been enjoying a quiet life, not in the gated estates of the Glendora foothills where mansions sprawl, but nestled amongst everyday homes and neighborhoods.
The quiet life is what they like.
“We’re always invited to events. Sometimes they’re mandatory, but whenever given a choice, we always decline. We would rather go home and barbecue and just be simple,” Wilson said.
While not necessarily showered with riches, Mora does get to enjoy occasional perks … such as a new Corvette offered for Nyquist’s Kentucky Derby victory.
Mora and Wilson have been living in Glendora for three years.
Mora found his way to Glendora with the help of his sister during a divorce. Mora and Wilson eventually met through Facebook several years ago and began dating over their love of horses. The rest is history.
“The City of Glendora is a great place to be,” Mora said.
During the celebration at the Kentucky Derby, Wilson was gifted with not one bouquet of roses, but with two. One bouquet was preserved at Glendora Florist. The second was handed out one rose at a time to racing fans who practically mobbed the couple while en route to their flight.
Having been voracious about horse racing since she was five, Wilson knew one day she would be standing on the Kentucky Derby winner’s podium.
“I really can’t put it into words yet. For the first couple of weeks all I could do is weep,” Wilson said. “Almost every day is a surreal day.”
Wilson previously worked as a spotter during the Breeder’s Cup in 2014 for HR TV. She will work as a spotter for NBC in the near future.
It was a busy morning at the Team O’Neill barn June 6. Mora and fellow trainers traveled from stable to stable, helping prepare horses, working them out on the racetrack and providing therapy after the morning run.
Mora and O’Neill watched their horses from the stands and monitored their performance. Secret House, whom Mora expressed excitement in that morning, was just finishing his workout.
The best months of the year to work are from January to May, Mora said.
“If you have good clients, they’ll buy horses and send you babies. If we get babies to train, that means we have a chance to be in the Derby,” Mora said. “It always was my dream. Thank God I made it two times already.”
Mora found a renewed perspective of life after suffering a stroke in September of 2015. It was purely stress-induced, a hazard of the tensions trainers undergo to win.
“I try to stay as cool as possible, not try to get too excited or too emotional. That’s the only way to survive and live a few more years, forget about the stress, as heavy as it is,” Mora said.
The trainer is confident that the Kentucky Derby will again be within reach.
“You see all the babies training, their performance and their mentality. I choose a lot of mentality over performance. So far, I’ve been right three times. I hope I’m right one more time,” Mora said.