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Racing News

Published Mar 15, 2024
by Mike Henry
Boot Barn Trainer of the Month Juan Carlos Avila with his 5-year-old Grade III winner, Little Vic

Thoroughbred trainer Juan Carlos Avila typed three words in Spanish on his smartphone Thursday to describe his feelings when he and owner Victor Martinez, the retired all-star baseball slugger, discovered their 2020 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo had come down with a fever three days before the Kentucky Derby, forcing them to scratch him from the race.

Dia muy triste.

Even now, memories of that very sad day remain vivid.

The Kentucky Derby had been pushed back to Sept. 5 by COVID-19, providing Avila with plenty of time to sharpen the colt’s competitive edge. Jockey Samy Camacho, who’d ridden King Guillermo to his 49-1 upset victory here and a second-place finish in the subsequent Grade I Arkansas Derby, completed the team of Venezuelans at Churchill Downs seeking Kentucky Derby glory.

“I don’t know what happened. He was perfect that morning, and after we had lunch and came back to the barn he had a 102-degree temperature,” Avila recalled. “To run in a race like the Derby, we needed him at 100 percent.

“It was a very sad day, a very bad day for Victor and myself. It was sad for our whole families.”

King Guillermo never returned to his Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby form and is now standing at stud in Argentina. Avila and Martinez, who runs his horses under the stable name Victoria’s Ranch, still embrace their memories of a special time and a special horse, but the present is now and the future is filled with a new set of plans and ambitions.

“Every day, we say we’re going to find another horse for the Kentucky Derby,” said Avila, who earned the Boot Barn Trainer of the Month Award by winning seven races from 22 starters between Feb. 7-March 8. “It’s our dream, and maybe we can do it.”

Toward that end, they attended last year’s Keeneland September Yearling Sale, purchasing four well-bred colts with the hope at least one has the talent and staying power to forge a path to Louisville for the 2025 Run for the Roses.

It might be unwise to count them out. Although he was a relative unknown in the United States before King Guillermo, Avila had won almost 3,000 races in Venezuela, along with nine titles (including seven in a row) at La Rinconada outside Caracas. He came to the United States in 2018.

On the day he won the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, Avila also saddled 4-year-old colt Trophy Chaser, a horse he had purchased as a 2-year-old, to win the Grade III Challenger Stakes. That result took a backseat to the wild celebration that ensued after King Guillermo’s triumph.

“Five years ago, Victor told me ‘I need a horse for the Kentucky Derby,’ ” Avila said, chuckling at the memory. “I said ‘What? You’re crazy.’ So we bought King Guillermo (as a 2-year-old in Ocala), and he almost made it.”

On Saturday, almost four years to the day after King Guillermo’s huge Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby victory, Avila started Catire Vizcaya in this year’s Grade III Oldsmar showcase. The horse failed to find his best rhythm after some early bumping, finishing ninth of 10.

Avila, who won the Grade II Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream in 2021 with 52-1 shot Wholebodemeister, has about 30 horses here, including the crack sprinter Little Vic. Owned by Victoria’s Ranch, the 5-year-old horse won last year’s Grade III Tom Fool Handicap at Aqueduct and has career earnings of $347,980. He finished seventh in his 2024 debut, the Pelican Stakes here on Feb. 10, but Avila says “he is very nice right now.”

Avila has been married 20 years to Lindsay Perera, who is a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist. They have a son Kendrich, 21, and a daughter Tabitha, 16; his older daughter Valeria lives in Venezuela and his son Juan Carlos, Jr., 29, who played a few years in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, operates the JC Hitting Performance baseball school in Hialeah, where he is a batting instructor.

As much as Avila enjoys seeing his horses win, his pride shines through when discussing his children. His family lives in Miami, and he isn’t able to get back as much as he likes, but he has discovered a new passion: watching Tabitha sing and perform onstage.

“She wants to study music, and I enjoy what she does so much,” he said. “It’s different to me, but I love watching her do what she loves. The horses are my job, and we don’t talk about them when I’m home.”

“Live It Up Challenge” winners announced. Marike Emery won the Oldsmar oval’s “Live It Up Challenge” Handicapping Contest with a final bankroll figure of $463.70 to capture first prize of two free seats into next season’s “High Rollers” contest at Tampa Bay Downs. Each seat has a value of $1,000.

The second-through-fourth-place finishers – William Artz, Shawn Heron and Anthony Izzo, Sr. – all won a seat at the “High Rollers” event. Izzo also had the most winners throughout the duration of the contest, 23, to earn an additional $500 prize.

The free online contest attracted 843 participants, with 83 still active upon Sunday’s conclusion.

Around the oval. Antonio Gallardo rode two winners today. He was on 5-year-old gelding Gabbysonholiday in the fourth race for owner Moore Racing, LLC and trainer William E. Morey. Gallardo added the seventh race on the turf with 3-year-old colt Elevated Game, owned by Troy Johnson and Charles Lo and trained by Jamie Ness.

Thoroughbred racing continues Saturday with a nine-race card beginning at 12:15 p.m. Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day action begins at 12:19 p.m. Jockey Scott Spieth will resume his pursuit of 5,000 career winners this weekend, with two mounts on Saturday and three Sunday. Spieth, with 4,998 victories, is bidding to become the 35th jockey in North American history to reach 5,000.

Tampa Bay Downs races on a Wednesday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday schedule and is open every day except Easter Sunday, March 31 for simulcast wagering, no-limits action and tournament play in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.









Boot Barn Trainer of the Month Juan Carlos Avila with his 5-year-old Grade III winner, Little Vic

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