SARATOGA SPRINGS – Based on her first start, 2-year-old filly Be Your Best has learned her racing lessons well. She made her debut at Saratoga Race Course on July 31, winning by 3 1/4 lengths under jockey José Ortiz for owner/breeder Mike Ryan and trainer Horacio De Paz.
She’s still got to work on her barn manners, though.
In De Paz’s barn in Clare Court, she’s one of the few, maybe the only, horse whose stall is guarded by a gate instead of webbing. De Paz says that she’s pretty friendly and rather kind, but she developed an unfortunate habit of escaping.
“She’s small,” he said, “so she could crawl underneath the webbing and get out of the stall. She wouldn’t go far, she’d just stand in the shedrow and eat grass, but we had to put up the gate so that she couldn’t do that anymore.”
He also got her a goat, hoping that a companion animal might settle her. As it happened, fellow trainer Rudy Rodriguez had a goat that he was looking to rehome. It seems to have worked, but the goat, an imperious sort named Oreo, might be causing more problems than he’s solving.
On Travers morning, Oreo is settled comfortably into the stall next to Be Your Best’s. There’s a red “Horse In Today” sign hanging high up on the stall; the horse that resides in that stall is nowhere to be seen, relaxing back in a corner, so for all appearances, it looks like the sign is there for Oreo.
Which, it kind of is. Ordinarily, those signs hang off the lower part of the stall door.
“He kept trying to eat the sign,” said an amused, mildly exasperated De Paz. “So we moved it and now he’s all upset. He keeps jumping and down to try to get it.”
Pretty much on cue, Oreo got up and leapt straight up, getting in a nibble on the sign before gravity brought him back down.
Oreo will not be accompanying Be Your Best to the track on Thursday, when she is entered in the P.G. Johnson Stakes, race 10 on the card. Ryan bred her in Ireland and brought her to the United States, one of six horses he has with De Paz.
“Heading into that first race, she trained really good,” said De Paz. “But with first-time starters, you never know what will happen. We just hoped that it translated to the race. And it did — she handled everything really well.”
Originally from Texas, De Paz got his start in horse racing by riding Quarter Horse match races. His first racetrack job was at Louisiana Downs, where he lived on the backside, which was quite a difference from living at home.
“That was an experience,” he recalled with a smile. “But I met some great people there, and I learned a lot.”
From Louisiana, he went to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, working for John Servis, trainer of 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones. Impressive as Servis’ résumé was, it was nothing compared to De Paz’s next employer: Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“He brought me to Kentucky and Saratoga,” said De Paz. “We went back to Kentucky after Saratoga, and that year the Breeders’ Cup was at Churchill Downs, and Todd had like 18 horses running. I was like, ‘That guy knows what he’s doing,’ so I ended up hooking up with them and going to California.”
“Todd” is Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, an alumnus of the Lukas school of training horses, a former assistant to the man called “Coach” on the backstretch.
De Paz spent five years with Pletcher, then did stints in Ocala breaking horses and working on private farms before heading to Maryland to be the private trainer for Sagamore Farm’s reborn Thoroughbred racing and breeding organization.
Among his first clients when he opened a public stable in 2018 was Barry Schwartz, a former chair of the board of the New York Racing Association who has long owned and bred horses in New York. One of the first horses De Paz had, a filly named Sharp Starr, brought the trainer his first graded stakes win, in the 2020 Go for Wand Handicap.
“I announced I was going public at Saratoga,” he said, “and then I ran into Barry at the Wishing Well. He said he’d like to send me some horses.”
Four years later, he trains the 7-5 morning line favorite in the P.G. Johnson Stakes, run on the turf at 1 1/16 miles. Be Your Best will break from post 6 with José Ortiz in the saddle.
“She enjoys training,” said De Paz, walking to her stall to pose for a photo with her. “She’s really professional and classy.”
The same, alas, cannot be said of Oreo, who used every inch of the lead tying him to the stall to lunge at “his” filly and De Paz, perhaps misunderstanding that he’s supposed to be a companion and not a bodyguard.
“I’m not afraid of him,” said the trainer, not entirely convincingly. “It seems like when people come around, he gets kind of hyper.”
On Thursday, Be Your Best will, one can hope, run her best and get to the winner’s circle of a Saratoga stakes race. Afterward, she’ll walk back to the quiet of Clare Court, to be bathed and fed and tucked into her stall for the night.
And, for better or worse, Oreo will be waiting.