Jean Francois Gagne had no idea what was in store for him with Ernesto Delacruz, who handily won Saturday’s $93,310 Western Canada Pacing Derby at Century Mile.
“To be honest with you I never knew what kind of a horse I had,” said the horse’s trainer/driver and co-owner after his four and a half length triumph over Joe Rich. “But I would have bet you that he wouldn’t be anything special at all.”
That would change in a hurry. On March 5 on a minus-3 morning this past spring Gagne put Ernesto Delacruz behind the starting gate for the first time. Unraced as a two-year-old, Ernesto Delacruz was qualifying for the first time to see just what kind of a horse lay within the tall and lanky three-year-old’s body.
“After the qualifier I said to Naomi Campbell, a neighbour and one of my grooms: ‘We’ve got a weapon here. There’s some hidden speed under the seat.’ I can still hear Naomi laughing. Ernesto only went in 2:01 4/5 in that qualifier but he had no where to go, was in against older horses and still paced his last quarter in :29 4/5. It was a big display of class and desire. I quickly changed my opinion of him that day.”
A week later, Ernesto Delacruz won at first asking pacing a mile in 1:59 1/5 and winning easily by two and a quarter lengths. Ernesto Delacruz has never looked back.
Saturday’s Derby was Ernesto Delacruz’s 11th win of the year in 24 starts. He went wire-to-wire to win the $75,000 Super Finals for three-year-olds, the $50,000 Moores Mile with a big move down backstretch and around the final turn and the Maverick elimination and $55,700 Final.
Ernesto Delacruz, a winner this year of $222,428, also finished a close second in the $77,740 Ralph Klein. Now, with the Derby victory, he has added a chapter to his story. Going wire-to-wire in 1:52 4/5 - equalling his lifetime mark - Ernesto Delacruz went the first quarter in :27 2/5 and then paced a wicked :27 second flat second quarter to get to the half in a sizzling 54 2/5.
“Fifty-four and two-fifths?” marvelled Gagne a day after the race he won by four and a half lengths. “You’re kidding? I thought we went in 55 and change. I’m glad I didn’t know that (on Saturday) or I might have been scared.”
“It was a big mile. A very big mile,” said Gagne. “The wind was blowing; there was snow falling around the last turn. It was far from a plus-20 summer weather. Jamie Gray was right on my neck the whole way with Joe Rich. Jamie was getting the trip and I was worried. But I could hear Joe Rich breathing heavily. When I asked Ernesto to stretch out a little more he did. At the top of the lane I was pretty sure we were going to win. I said to myself ‘Oh, boy; they’re going to have to work hard to get us now.’”
They didn’t. Gagne, who started his driving career in Quebec before coming to Alberta in 1998, said he didn’t really decide on a strategy even as they lined up behind the starting gate.
“Ernesto told me the strategy. He showed up sharp and eager to go so I let him roll. It worked out. “It was a nice way to finish the stakes season. He’s the real deal. What can you say?” said Gagne, who is a third generation harness horseman - his grandfather, his father and a couple of uncles were also in the sport.
Most horses would be really tired after a race like the Derby but Ernesto Delacruz finished strong and paced out very well past the wire and around the turn.
“Ernesto is going to be a very, very nice horse,” said Gagne, 53, who has won 1,429 races in his career with his drives earning over $10 million in purses.
“He’s unique. I’ve never come across a horse before that you can drive aggressively one week and then a week later you can take him off the gate with two fingers. He’s very versatile. He can do it from anywhere. And he’s very fast. I’ll be honest, he’s way faster than I thought he would be. He lets you know what you need and he does it with no fight. With him it’s like ‘OK, whatever.’”
Gagne had another horse 20 years ago - Tajma Hall - that went on to be a superstar after he won the Derby in 2001 in 1:52 1/5.
“Tajma Hall was a great horse. A really great horse,” said Gagne, who took over the training of Tajma Hall from Serge Masse in 2002 and guided the winner of 62 races to a marvellous career that included a track record at Northlands Park at the astounding age of 10 in 2008 when he paced in 1:50 3/5 with Gagne in the bike.
Like Ernesto Delacruz, Tajma Hall, who went on to win $765,245, was co-owned by Albertan Peter Van Seggelan. Now there is Ernesto Delacruz with the promising future.
“He had a long campaign this year. I’ll probably race him a couple more times this year and then send him home to Wetaskiwin for the winter,” said Gagne of the farm he has owned for 16 years with his wife, Marjorie, who, along with Naomi Campbell, also looks after Ernesto Delacruz.
“He’s got two very nice ladies looking after him. Ernesto hasn’t been defeated by very many lengths. You know how they rate hockey players with a plus/minus system for goals scored by the player’s team while on the ice minus the goals scored against when they are also on the ice? Ernesto would be a plus player. When he doesn’t win he isn’t usually very far from the winner. He comes to play,” Gagne said of the horse who is almost certainly going to be Alberta’s male Three-Year-Old of 2022.
Sired by Alberta’s Vertical Horizon, Ernesto Delacruz was bred by Van Seggelan and Gagne, who own the three-year-old’s dam, Camifasolasi Do, who won 25 races in her career.
“Camifasolasi Do is a very small - almost tiny - mare but she was a tough race horse,” said Gagne. “She had three other foals to race and they all won so she’s a 100 per cent producer.” Ernesto Delacruz is her last foal. Until next year that is.
“We sold Camifasolasi Do to a lady friend of Lance Ward because I was leaving the province to race in Ontario. She was broke to ride and I thought my daughter Juliana, who is eight, would like her because she was getting too tall to ride ponies. So I asked Lance’s friend if she would sell her back to me and two years ago she said yes.
Because of Ernesto Delacruz’s success, Gagne and Van Seggelan, wondered about breeding Camifasolasi Do again. “I took her to Olds College and the vet said she’s ready to breed. So we did. We bred her back to Vertical Horizon so next spring she’ll have either a full sister or a full brother to Ernesto Delacruz. It’s exciting,” said Gagne.
STOCK REPORT - Saturday’s co-feature was the $112,910 Century Casino Filly Pace. To no one’s surprise, the 1-9 favourite who paid $2.30 to win, was Divine Art, who won her 12th race in a row.
Already a certainty to be voted Alberta’s Three-Year-Old Filly of the Year, Divine Art is also virtually a cinch to win Horse of the Year as well.
But it was a lot closer than most expected with Divine Art winning a hard-pushed length and a quarter victory over Saphire Blue, who, with Phil Giesbrecht in the bike, followed all the way.
Parked to the first quarter, Divine Art assumed control and, like Ernesto Delacruz, led throughout. “She maybe didn’t race as good as she has but she won and that’s all that matters,” said trainer/driver Nathan Sobey.
Owned by Robert Jones, Diane Bertrand and John Hind, the Filly Pace is expected to be Divine Art’s last race in Alberta.
California, where she is eligible for a couple of stakes, is one option but Sobey isn’t sure. “I’ll have to talk to the owners and we’ve got some decisions to make,” said Sobey, whose mother, Karen, and Bertrand, are the horse’s breeders. She’s a winner and I really believe is just getting started.”
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