January 22, 2021
Cancer Survivor to Saddle Harpers First Ride in Pegasus World Cup (G1)
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – Claudio Gonzalez has come a long way since first arriving in the United States more than 25 years ago without a job and barely able to speak the language. He has steadily climbed the ladder, beating cancer along the way, and established himself as the dominant trainer in his home base of Maryland.
Not surprisingly, the affable and easy-going 44-year-old native of Santiago, Chile is careful not to take his success – on or off the track – for granted.
“For sure, it makes you appreciate what you have,” Gonzalez said. “You’re always working hard. This job is not easy, and every day is a new day. One day you might win three races, the next day you might not win any. You don’t know. You have to keep working hard every day.”
Gonzalez will be chasing his biggest prize to date when he sends out Harpers First Ride for the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) Jan. 23 at Gulfstream Park. Last fall, the 5-year-old gelding provided the trainer with his third and most prestigious career graded-stakes triumph in the historic Pimlico Special (G3) at Pimlico Race Course.
GMP Stables, Arnold Bennewith and Cypress Creek Equine’s Harpers First Ride was among the original dozen invitees to the 1 1/8-mile Pegasus for 4-year-olds and up, coming off a 2020 campaign in which he won seven of 11 starts, four stakes and close to $500,000 in purse earnings. The son of Grade 1 winner Paynter arrived in South Florida Jan. 11, and Gonzalez followed two days later.
“Not only for me but for any trainer, it’s special. It’s a big race and everybody pays attention. Maybe they can know a little bit more about Claudio Gonzalez,” Gonzalez said. “No matter what, it’s good for any trainer to be here for a race like that. Everybody is watching.”
Maryland’s leading trainer the past four years, Gonzalez has reached triple digits in each of the past three, even with live racing paused in the state for 2 ½ months last year amid the coronavirus pandemic. He swept all four meets in 2020, has won 11 of the last 14 dating back to Laurel’s 2017 fall stand, and owns or shares 15 titles overall.
Gonzalez is also a two-time leading trainer during the Maryland State Fair meet at Timonium that typically bridges Laurel’s summer and calendar year-ending fall stands but was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“It is not just me. I have a good team. I have very good assistants, riders, hotwalkers, grooms, everything. We are one team and they do a great job,” Gonzalez said. “All my owners understand, if you put the horse in the right spot you have a great chance to win the race. That is the key for me. If they’re in the right race, then they can win.”
Gonzalez came to the U.S. in November 1995, a teenager in search of a job, eventually landing work galloping for Juan Serey, a fellow Chilean and the leading trainer in New Jersey at the time.
“Nobody in my family had anything to do with the horses. Only my uncle, who liked to bet the horses and would take me with him,” Gonzalez said. “When I saw the horses I decided I wanted to be a jockey. I started out trying to be a jockey, but I got too big. I ate too much.
“My father [Francisco] was in New York and brought me here. I went to see Juan at that time and he gave me the chance to gallop for him,” he added. “Because Juan is from Chile, too, people told me about him and I just went to him and asked if he had a job.”
Gonzazlez stayed with Serey until 2002 and had a short stint under trainer Gary Contessa before becoming an exercise rider for trainer Ben Perkins Jr. at Monmouth Park. Among the top horses that came along during their time together were multiple graded-stakes winners Wildcat Heir and Wild Gams, Grade 3 winner Max Forever and popular local 12-time stakes-winning millionaire Joey P.
“He always galloped Joey P. When he would say, ‘Joey’s ready,’ we knew he would win. Everybody knew and loved Joey P. around here,” Perkins said. “Looking back on it, some of the horses he got on for me he would say, ‘This horse is ready today,’ and he was always spot-on with his evaluation.
“Claudio’s just a super, super person. He’s a hard-working guy and he was an excellent rider. He always went the extra mile,” he added. “He wasn’t like, ‘OK, I’m done with my horses and I’m going home.’ He paid attention to everything going on and we had a lot of success with Claudio. You could see then he was interested in becoming a trainer, and he put in all the work necessary to do it.”
Gonzalez was married with two young children when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2008. He had surgery to remove a testicle and underwent chemotherapy, leaving him unable to work for six months.
“It was a shock when I went into the doctor and he told me it was cancer. When they say cancer, you think ‘Oh no, I’m going to die,’” Gonzalez said. “Right away, I said that when I was finished with the chemo I was going to be OK. I put it in my mind. I told my kids and my wife that I was going to be OK. I didn’t know if I was, but I had it in my mind I was going to be OK … and that’s what happened.”
In addition to the support he received from family and friends, Gonzalez is especially grateful for the compassion shown him by Perkins, who allowed Gonzalez to focus on his treatment and convalescence.
“At the time I was sick … Ben told me, ‘No matter what, we’ll take care of you.’ He paid me every single week when I was out. There’s not too many people that would do that,” Gonzalez said. “He was there for me when I needed somebody. I owe my life, really, to Benny Perkins. If it wasn’t for him, I’m not here.”
Perkins, a multiple Grade 1-winning trainer including Delaware Township and Wildcat Heir in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash in 2001 and 2004, respectively, said there was never a hesitation from he or his clients that they would step in to help Gonzalez.
“A lot of my owners are hands-on guys and they’re around the barn. A lot of them are people that had been with us for a while,” Perkins said. “They knew what Claudio was putting into the operation and they were all willing to help out when he needed help. It was a full group thing.
“Everybody pitched in,” he added. “The guys knew him and they knew the kind of person he was. He’s a good family man. He’s got a great wife and kids, and everybody was glad to help.”
Gonzalez was still working for Perkins when he got his first horses, a small string he would tend to before and after his regular job. He won with his second career starter, Quiet Tiara, Nov. 14, 2012 at Laurel, earning his first stakes win the following September with Princess Perfect in Monmouth’s Jersey Girl Handicap.
“At the start when I was in New Jersey, I had five horses. At 3 o’clock I would take care of my horses over there and then at 5:30 I would go to Benny and gallop eight horses for him and then I came back to take care of my horses after that,” Gonzalez said. “When I got my first win as a trainer, in the picture Benny Perkins is there. He ran in the same race and was fourth. He said, ‘This is the first of many, many more.’ It was a great day.”
According to Equibase statistics, Gonzalez has compiled 883 wins and $24.9 million in purse earnings from 4,191 starters through mid-January. He set career highs with 756 starters and 174 winners in 2019 and $5.2 million in purses earned in 2020
“It’s a dream. You can only dream that. I never thought that I would be able to win that many races in such a short time,” Gonzalez said. “It’s amazing. All the time I look and see where I was and where I am now, and I think it’s like a dream,” he added. “Where I come from, it was very hard. Nobody gives you nothing. You always have to work hard and I appreciate every day I have to be able to do this. Now I can take care of my family and be happy. It’s very good.”
Prior to Harpers First Ride, Gonzalez’s best horse was Afleet Willy, a gelding he claimed for $25,000 Dec. 27, 2015 and turned into a multiple stakes winner of more than $555,000 in purses. Four of his five stakes wins came at Laurel Park.
Gonzalez claimed Harpers First Ride, bred in Maryland by Sagamore Farm, for $30,000 out of a Sept. 14, 2019 win at Churchill Downs. Together they have won nine of 14 starts with two seconds and a third and $549,995 in purses.
“The last year was really big for him. He ran in the Pimlico Special and he won. He won three more stakes and he looked better and better every race,” Gonzalez said. “After every race he looked better, that’s why we decide to take this step. It will be the best horses in the country.”
Harpers First Ride has breezed twice since his latest win, the most recent coming Jan. 16 at Gulfstream. Gonzalez won 10 stakes in Maryland in 2020 as well as the Charles Town Oaks (G3) with Fly On Angel.
“When I came [to the U.S.] I didn’t know anybody, but when they first took my picture I said, ‘I know I can do it anywhere,’” he said. “I am proof that if you work hard, and if you believe it, you can make it.”