There seemed to be an inordinate number of people who were displeased with the result of the Aug. 2 Whitney Handicap, mainly due to the winning trainer Eric Guillot, who, to put it mildly, is not your typical trainer. Looking and sounding as if he had been plucked out of the swamps of the Bayou after years of wrestling gators, Guillot does not exactly fit in with the Pletchers, Motts, and Clements of the industry. Nor does he care to.
But it was only a matter of time before Guillot exposed himself for what he really is, and that is someone shrewder, smarter, and more compassionate than people give him credit for. Since he intruded on the natural order of things in the world of Thoroughbred training, the only face he revealed, and how he was perceived, was that of a loud talking Cajun redneck who was more of a buffoon and a blowhard than competent horse trainer. But as it turns out, there is a lot more to Guillot, and it took a victory by Moreno in the $1,500,000 Whitney Handicap to bring that out.
To the media and rival trainers, words spilled from Guillot’s mouth like the gumbo he serves up outside his Saratoga barn each summer. Whether gorging oneself on gumbo or jambalaya or listening to a zydeco band, Guillot’s barn was the place to be
But in the grand scheme of things, Guillot was not a trainer one took seriously. After all, this is a man who would stick pins in voodoo dolls of big-name opposing trainers. At least that’s what he wanted you to believe. He has a photo of Marylou Whitney tacked to a tree outside his barn, reading “I Love Moreno,” and a bizarre-looking equine version of voodoo figures hanging from one of the limbs. Last year, he accused Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Luis Saez of using an electrical device in the Travers Stakes, in which his gelding, Moreno, was beaten a nose by the Lukas-trained Will Take Charge.
But following Moreno’s wire-to-wire victory in the Whitney Aug. 2, the real Eric Guillot showed his face for the first time. The fun-loving harlequin poured out his heart on what was an emotionally draining day that saw him lose a maiden 2-year-old colt, Sir William Bruce, who it is believed suffered a fatal heart attack following the running of the fifth race.
Although the heartbreak of losing a horse he and Southern Equine Stables owner Mike Moreno raised from a baby will last for a while, the joy of winning the Whitney will last a lifetime.
“Man, I hated to lose that colt, but what a thrill to win the Whitney,” said Guillot, his shoes and pants speckled with dirt from running out on the track “to try to save my horse’s life.”
“I was crying when I lost him,” he added. “He was such a nice horse and that really shook me up. Man, you talk about highs and lows in this game; all within two hours. I walked around for a while and just tried to be by myself. I felt bad for my guys. We’re all a family and they work so hard. I called my help and told them to try to just focus on Moreno. Our luck has been pretty bad lately; we’ve been on a bad run, so maybe the Whitney will be the pendulum that starts swinging the other way. But I’ll mourn this colt’s loss for a while. We bred him and we have his full-brother. I try to have fun, but I take my horses seriously.
“I know I talk a lot of c--p, and everybody thinks I’m some goofball out here who doesn’t know what he’s doing, but I know what I’m doing. The bottom line is, my work ethic, my dedication, and my desire to be the best is second to none, and my crew is second to none. At 10 o’clock when everybody is done, my crew is just getting started. This is the kind of race we get up at 4:30 in the morning for. I want to thank my partner and friend Mike Moreno for believing in me for the past 15 years. He never watches over me. I can sleep in if I want. But at 4:30 when that alarm goes off there is something that burns inside me to get up and go out there and be successful.”
Moreno was also distraught over losing Sir William Bruce. “I was in tears,” he said. “We loved him, we raised him, and we had a lot of hope for him. I didn’t even go in the paddock for the Whitney. I couldn’t handle it I was so heartbroken.”
For Guillot, one of the big thrills of winning the Whitney was having the trophy presented by Marylou Whitney and winning the race that bears her family name. In the Trustees Room following the race, Guillot went up to Marylou and told her, “I appreciate everything you’ve ever done for horseracing. I’m in love with this game and always have been. I grew up with it. My great great great uncle owned a racetrack in 1840 in Louisiana, so it’s in my DNA and bloodlines.”
Guillot went over to the TV monitor in the back of the room to watch the replay and looked at his cell phone. “You don’t think people like me – 51 missed text messages.”
As the field was about to break, Guillot said. “2-1 he wins again.” In discussing Moreno’s trip, in which he led every step of the way under Junior Alvarado to defeat Itsmyluckyday and Will Take Charge, with the 3-5 favorite Palace Malice a well-beaten sixth, he said, “When I saw the :47 2/5 half and the 1:11 and change I was feeling pretty confident. I don’t know what happened to Palace Malice. He’s a very good horse, but I guess it just wasn’t his day. This time it was our turn. The farther they go the softer the fractions and the better he is. I was a little concerned when he broke a little flat-footed. Since he broke his maiden he hasn’t done much wrong. When we tried to do something different than what he is, then it backfires. The Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) he fractured a splint, so you have to throw that one out. The Met Mile wasn’t his game; too fast of a pace. Everything else he’s been right there.”
After turning back the brief challenge by Palace Malice, Moreno came home in :24 1/5 and :12 3/5 to defeat a game Itsmyluckyday by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:48.05 for the 1 1/8 miles.
Mike Moreno, who was convinced by Guillot to name his homebred son of Ghostzapper – Danceinthesunlight, by A.P. Indy after himself, seemed happier for his trainer than he was for himself or the horse.
“Eric is as good a horseman as there is out there,” Moreno said. “He’s colorful and most people don’t take the time to peel the onion and see what kind of person he really is. He’s very loyal and hard-working. When you meet him for the first time you think he’s loud, but that’s just him being him and being funny and enjoying life. It seems like everything he says is a joke, but he’s serious when it comes to his horses. I’ve believed in him for years. His philosophy, good or bad, like it or not, is that life is short and he wants to bring a little color, fun, and humor to the industry, as demented as it may be. He doesn’t mind being the target if people want to make him the target.
“He just wants to make me happy. I personally would rather finish third in a graded stakes race than win an allowance race that the horse may be eligible for, so we occasionally run horses in races in which they’re over their head. That’s what I want, and since I’m his only client, he’s willing to do that and doesn’t care how it affects his winning percentage. We’ve always had that understanding.”
Moreno decided to name the Ghostzapper colt after his family name after Guillot called him up before the colt’s first start and told him that he had as much talent as any horse he’d seen, and even though he was a head case and would take a while to come into his own, if he ever wants to name one after his last name this was the one with whom to give it a shot.
“Eric would never have a big stable with multiple clients, because it takes a person some time to get to know him and like him,” Moreno said. “We were friends before we were owner and trainer. Eric’s ex-wife worked for me and that’s how we met. For him, it’s all about good times, food, fun, friends, and family, but at the end of the day it doesn’t define him, believe it or not. If he hit the lottery tomorrow and had all the money in the world, he’d still be at the barn at 4:30 the next morning.”
After the race, Guillot had high expectations for dinner that night.
“Mike is going to buy me an eight-pound steroid lobster at Siros,” he said.
No worries. As Moreno says, “I take care of Eric and always will.”