LEFT TO RIGHT: Groom, Clifford Rhymer; trainer, Juan Arriagada; son, Nicolas Arriagada; stable pony Graylark; groom, Mauricio Madrid; groom, Ian Hughes
Juan Arriagada experienced personal and professional heartbreak in the days leading to last month’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar.
On Oct. 26, the trainer’s mother, Erna, died at home in Lima, Peru after an extended illness. After wrestling with his options, Arriagada, who had been stabled at Delaware Park, elected to travel to southern California to saddle his 4-year-old Estilo Talentoso for the $1-million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Nov. 6.
“In life, we have to do what we have to do,” said Arriagada at the time. “The owners trust me with their horse, and I feel like I have to do it. I’m a professional, and I have to do my job.”
Arriagada believed he would feel his mother’s presence the day of the race, but his hopes took a cruel turn when he was forced to scratch Estilo Talentoso early in the week because of an issue with her right foreleg. A few days later, she was sold to Japanese interests at the Fasig-Tipton November Sale in Lexington, Ky.
“I’m not the type of trainer who has 20 stakes horses in his barn,” Arriagada said earlier this week of his Breeders’ Cup disappointment. “When something like that happens, it’s pretty hard. But everybody in our sport has ups and downs. If you want good things to happen, you have to keep working hard.”
Returning to the embrace of his wife Alison, a former trainer, and their 3-year-old daughter Tezza picked up his spirits. So did the chance to work with his other horses on the Tampa Bay Downs backstretch in preparation for the current Oldsmar meeting.
And, a quick start that resulted in six victories, three seconds and three thirds from his first 18 starters didn’t hurt a bit, either.
“It’s like the best therapy there is,” said Arriagada, honored as the Salt Rock Tavern Trainer of the Month. “Horses can help you forget a lot of bad things. It’s good working with them, and it’s much better when you do well.”
Of course, Arriagada will always have a soft spot in his heart for Estilo Talentoso. He purchased the daughter of Maclean’s Music-Bazinga Baby, by Afleet Alex, for $15,000 at the 2019 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company’s June Two-Year-Olds & Horses of Racing Age Sale. With Arriagada as her owner and trainer, she finished second in her first four starts – three at Tampa Bay Downs – before breaking her maiden in June of 2020 at Gulfstream Park.
Estilo Talentoso won the one-mile Escena Stakes at Gulfstream on Aug. 30, earning a vacation. She returned last January to finish third here in the Wayward Lass Stakes, launching a year that would change her fortunes while elevating Arriagada’s profile.
Back-to-back runner-up efforts in the Grade 3 Runhappy Barbara Fritchie Stakes at Laurel and the G1 Madison Stakes at Keeneland attracted the attention of representatives of Medallion Racing, a partnership group that looks to purchase horses possessing graded-stakes-level talent and residual value post-racing (Medallion Racing is associated with Taylor Made Sales Agency).
Following a third-place performance in the G1 Derby City Distaff Stakes presented by Kendall-Jackson Winery on May 1 at Churchill Downs, Arriagada agreed to sell Estilo Talentoso to Medallion Racing and its partners for $400,000. Arriagada expected her next start in the G3 Bed o’Roses at Belmont on June 4 to be his last time training the filly, but following her gutsy, come-from-behind neck triumph on a sloppy track, the partners rewarded Arriagada by letting him keep Estilo Talentoso in his barn.
“He’s given us no reason to change anything up,” Medallion Racing Manager Phillip Shelton said before the Breeders’ Cup. “We want trainers who can give our horses a lot of individual attention, and I can’t speak highly enough of what Juan has done.”
That testimonial aside, back in Oldsmar, life goes on as before for the Arriagada family. Juan and Alison work as a team, exercising horses in the mornings and bouncing ideas back and forth about the horses.
“I have to be on a horse. It’s my life,” said Arriagada, a former jockey who was unable to ride for a while with a balky knee. “And Alison complains if she only gets on three or four. When she gets on seven or eight, then she’s happy.”
They also receive occasional help from son Nicolas, 22, who works as an exercise rider for trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. Nicolas earned his first career victory last April as a jockey at Tampa Bay Downs on one of his father’s horses, but struggles to maintain weight redirected his career path.
Nicolas saw his dad’s reaction to his mother’s death and the scratch of Estilo Talentoso as lessons he wants to carry forward himself.
“Nobody wants to feel that way, but he knew he had to do what he needed to do. He showed me you have to be strong in this life,” Nicolas said. “Bad things will happen and you’re going to hit the ground a lot of times, but you have to stand up and keep going.”
Besides his on-track Oldsmar triumphs, Arriagada had claimed four horses here through Wednesday; he is currently working with 20.
“The most important thing in this business is to have the right horses,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m a lucky guy or I know a little about horses, but if you don’t have the right ones you can’t do anything.”
Arriagada has a solid working relationship with his employees, including grooms Clifford Rhymer, Ian Hughes and Mauricio Madrid. Rhymer, who trained horses in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, says being around the Arriagada barn fits his philosophy of putting the horses first and foremost. Both men continue to hone their horseshoeing techniques in an effort to keep the horses happy and focused on competition.
“Doing the right thing – that’s his key,” Rhymer said. “The No. 1 thing is making sure they have good feet. That’s the only way they can run. After that, you move to the body and start to work on that. Once you’ve got all the problems solved, you’ve got a good horse.
“I feel like we can talk about everything happening with the horses, and from there we know what to do,” Rhymer said.
This time of year, Arriagada feels grateful for his family (including Alison’s mother, who cares for Tezza while they are at the track), his employees and the ability to pursue his passion. He knows nothing will be given to him, but is glad to work for his opportunities while enjoying his surroundings.
“Tampa Bay Downs just feels like home,” he said. “A lot of good things happen here, it’s a beautiful place and I really like the people.”
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