BALTIMORE — Manny Azpurua could be retired, enjoying the South Florida sunshine. He could walk away from training, secure in his success back in Venezuela, where he won more than 3,500 races before coming to the United States 35 years ago.
Few would begrudge him wanting an escape from the rigors of the racetrack — the pre-dawn wakeup calls, the physical labor, the constant worry about his horses.
Except that Azpurua is training the best horse of his life, at age 85. Heck, there’s no way he wants to call it quits now. Not when he has Social Inclusion, a precocious colt with just three career races under his belt but a wealth of talent.
Social Inclusion won his first start by 7½ lengths. In his second race, he won by 10 lengths and broke a track record at Florida’s Gulfstream Park. Then he finished third in the Wood Memorial, aced out for second by a nose. As a result, he came up short on the points list that determined the 20 horses who qualified for the Kentucky Derby.
So Azpurua and his horse waited for the Preakness, where Derby winner and overwhelming favorite California Chrome will try to keep alive a bid for the Triple Crown with a victory on Saturday.
Social Inclusion is the solid 5-1 second choice in the 10-horse field.
A victory would make Azpurua the oldest trainer to saddle a Preakness winner, coming just two weeks after 77-year-old Art Sherman became the oldest to train a Derby winner in California Chrome.
“Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons was 82 years, 10 months when he won the 1957 Preakness with Bold Ruler.
“Every race is the same,” Azpurua said Thursday in a soft voice. “The only thing different is the name.”
If Social Inclusion is an inexperienced as Azpurua is wise, the trainer’s faith in his horse remains solid.
“I love this horse,” he said. “He’s doing everything and I’m pleased about it. I expect a lot out of him.”
Azpurua’s passion for training is evident in his emotion. His eyes watered and he paused to collect himself before saying, “I love this business. I love the horses.”
He moves slowly around the barn, and in a rare concession to his age rides a golf cart over to the track to watch his horse train.
Owner Ron Sanchez appreciates Azpurua’s dedication and passion, and describes their relationship as being like father and son.
“I feel a lot of respect for him. He was a national hero for horse racing fans in Venezuela,” Sanchez said. “The more I know him the more I want to learn from him. He’s my man and we’re going to make it. It’s a dream for both of us.”
After Social Inclusion’s second start at Gulfstream, where he blew away the field, Sanchez began fielding offers for the colt. And the prices prospective buyers were willing to pay got bigger.
Sanchez turned them all down.
“I didn’t sell the horse because they wanted to take it away from him,” he said, his right hand resting lightly on Azpurua’s shoulder. “Loyalty is a big word and I’m a loyalty guy. We’re still going to keep together.”