This is the fourth installment in our daily newspaper series following Coach George Leonard’s first trip to the Breeders’ Cup. Find part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here.
Thursday morning was a study of contrasts for the George Leonard Barn versus the tranquil atmosphere of the previous day. Leonard and his wife of nine years, Isabel, chatted with driver Chester Bonnet on Wednesday while the track opened for practice, exchanging thoughts on the various contenders for the Classic and the distaff. Leonard has been popular with the press all week as he prepped California Angel for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, so every now and then he would answer questions from reporter after reporter.
On Thursday he had gathered a small crowd outside his part of the barn, many of them taking cameras or taking cell phone photos of the chestnut filly that captured the imaginations of so many fans of race. Owner Chris Walsh is of course in attendance, but “Angel” has attracted many California Chrome fans, including Chrome trainer Art Sherman.
As Angel and Bonnet made their way towards the chute, waiting to get on the trail, Sherman came around the corner and stopped to observe the filly.
âShe is a pretty filly; I really like it, âSherman said. âI told him that they are still much better at 3 years old. Chrome really turned the page when she was 3 years old.
âI see the flash. I see that look in his eyes, and he had the same look, wanting to do something. She’s a little aggressive, a little. And that was him too.
He stopped by the barn as the filly cooled for a photo op with Leonard and Walsh. Leonard thought there were so many images captured of his filly this week that he probably could never see them all.
Victoria Leonard, George’s sister, who joined the fan club this week, arrived from Louisiana on Wednesday. Victoria worked for George for a time, but is no longer in the racing industry. Still, growing up in the Leonard family has given her a thorough education in horses – and like George, she knows a good one when she sees him.
âIt’s the crazy thing, she still has a lot to do and learn to do,â Victoria said.
Victoria grew up as the only girl of four brothers, competing in the family’s horses before and after school and on weekends. Their father trained from the early 1970s until just before his death in a car crash 13 years ago. When he wasn’t training, he was working on a gas pipeline. Her days were long and the work was hard. Victoria says George shares their father’s work ethic.
âDad was strict; kinda like George, âshe said. âGood person, nice, but they run a tight ship. This is how we grew up.
It’s an emotional week for Victoria, seeing her brother get the chance so many little coaches dream of but never catch. All the more touching for her is that he did it with a girl from California Chrome. Victoria considers herself a “Chromie” as fans of the Kentucky Derby winner are called.
“I always wanted to have [a California Chrome] and for us to have one and make it so specialâ¦ I have no words, âshe said, noting that Chrome’s humble beginnings were part of what brought its story to life for she. âThe passion for his relationships reminded me a lot of our family. We grew up in horse racing. My father was the one who screamed at the races. In fact, when our horses were running, my brothers would tell me, ‘Get away from me’ because I was the one screaming and screaming, and they said it was embarrassing.
Isabel Leonard also shared her thoughts on California Angel’s trip with reporters on Thursday:
Angel did not disappoint his audience. She galloped down the chute to the veterinary station, where the horses are seen under the saddle while jogging before training as part of the improved Breeders’ Cup regulatory procedures. Bonnet took her on her usual gallop and she made her trademark jump head changes in an attempt to get away from him. Towards the end of the gallop, he said she was making him work hard to keep it from taking off. She is ready.
With this new focus came offers. Leonard didn’t say how much or how much, but told reporter Jennie Rees Thursday morning that Walsh had turned down a number, and for that he is grateful. The owner and trainer believe, like Sherman, that with a 2-year-old the promise could turn into anything by the age of three. They want to be there when she achieves her full potential.
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