Double the Pleasure: Michael Pender - by Lenny Shulman

 (Originally published in the December 17, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

Apparently trainer Michael Pender felt it took too long for Jeranimo and Ultimate Eagle to win graded stakes a week apart in October, so he sent them both back out to take graded events on consecutive days in November.

“That was a big weekend, and it had nothing to do with turkey,” said the 45-year-old conditioner of his Thanksgiving weekend feast at Hollywood Park, when 5-year-old Jeranimo won the Citation Handicap (gr. IIT) Nov. 26 and 3-year-old Ultimate Eagle scored in the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT) one day later, giving the personable trainer his first grade I victory.

Not bad for a guy with a 20-horse stable.

Pender grew up in the shadow of Santa Anita Park in Glendale, Calif. He was sold on racing at age 7 when his mother took him to Santa Anita and bought him a $2 win ticket. After college and an internship with Quarter Horse trainer Bubba Cascio in Texas, Pender returned home and put together partnerships, owning some claimers and spreading them around to various trainers. After asking a bunch of questions and keeping his eyes open, Pender took out his own trainer’s license in 2005, fired the trainers he had, and began calling the shots himself.

He got some low-level claimers to the winner’s circle and caught the eye of owner B.J. Wright, whose son and Pender played together on a football team in Glendale that had been coached by the elder Wright.

“B.J. asked if I remembered when I was his QB,” said Pender. “Then he said now I was going to be his trainer.”

That arrangement is working out just fine. Wright, Pender, and Rick Taylor go to 2-year-old sales together and picked Jeranimo out for $70,000 at the 2008 Barretts May sale. Two years later they plucked Ultimate Eagle out of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s April auction for the same price. Jeranimo has banked better than $800,000 to date, and Ultimate Eagle is at just under $330,000, and there is plenty of upside to both going forward.

After dropping his first three career starts earlier this year on dirt, Ultimate Eagle, a Mizzen Mast colt, has reeled off four straight trips to the winner’s circle over turf, including a victory in the Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) preceding the Hollywood Derby. The distance specialist has won at 81⁄2, nine, and 10 furlongs.

“The way he finishes up his works and gallops out and bounces off the track, we knew he was a distance horse the day we first started training on him,” Pender stated. “When you turn the screws on these horses, some will fall apart and others come back and want more; he’s always wanted more.

“He has the kind of gait that reminds you of top horses like Tiznow; a fluid way of going.”

Pender guaranteed victory in the Oak Tree Derby despite odds of 34-1. Not wanting to jinx Ultimate Eagle, he backed off the guarantees before the Hollywood Derby, but rider Martin Pedroza guaranteed Pender they’d win, which they did at 15-1.

“He made every pole a winning one,” noted Pender, “and with pressure, too. I didn’t think Shug’s (McGaughey) horse (Imagining) would take him on so early, but they committed, and it turned out to be a match race from the quarter pole home.”

Pender firmly believes Ultimate Eagle can be as good, if not better, on dirt than he is on grass, and is pointing him to the Strub series back at Santa Anita early next year.

Pender won the 2010 Strub Stakes (gr. II) with Jeranimo, who ran seventh, beaten less than six lengths, in this year’s TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) between his victories in the Oak Tree Mile Stakes (gr. IIT) and Citation. In the latter, Jeranimo, a son of Congaree, accelerated down the lane in breathtaking strides to dominate by 23⁄4 lengths. Pender drew a line through the Breeders’ Cup effort over a soggy Churchill Downs turf course.

“He was kicking up divots throughout the race, really digging into it instead of skipping over it,” said Pender. “When this horse finds his stride, he almost starts to levitate, like he’s not even touching the ground.”

Pender plans to send Jeranimo to the San Gabriel Stakes (gr. IIT), which he won last year, and then to Dubai for the Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I).

“We’d like to give him the opportunity to take on the best in the world over a firm turf course,” said Pender.

Pender, a married father of two, had 12 horses in his barn three months ago, five of them for Wright. Brian Cunningham of Cunningham Stables has been bolstering Pender’s horse population as well.

“We’re a meat-and-potatoes barn,” said Pender, “but lo and behold we have the best son of Mizzen Mast and the best son of Congaree. The irony is the phone hasn’t been ringing even since three grade IIs and a grade I (victory) in 60 days. Maybe I still need to prove something.”

The old quarterback has already proved he knows how to move his team into the end zone.

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