For the past several years, George Leonard III has taken a yearly trip to Ocala, Florida, to shop for potential racehorses.
The Shelbyville-based trainer usually doesn’t spend more than $7,000 to $8,000 at an auction, so when a 2-year-old filly that caught his eye was available for $5,500, he bought the horse for Columbus couple Alan and Chris Walsh.
That was June 11. Just a few months later, California Angel is headed to one of horse racing’s most prestigious events. The Kentucky-bred filly will compete in the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 5 in Del Mar, California.
“We are thrilled,” Chris Walsh said. “We are breeders, and we are owners, and we never expected that an unexpected filly would take us to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Chris, who is from Maine, and Alan, a Bluffton native, ran a western store in Bluffton for several years before moving to southeastern Brown County in 1989. They started with quarter horses then began purchasing Thoroughbreds in 2000.
The Walshes now have nine horses, five of which currently are racing. They keep broodmares at their farm and at Swifty Farm in Seymour.
“We thought, ‘This is a great adventure,’” Chris said. “We ought to get involved with this.”
A quick rise
California Angel had not raced prior to being purchased by Leonard and the Walshes. But her bloodlines suggested that she could be a fast filly.
Angel’s father, California Chrome, was one win away from racing’s Triple Crown after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2014. He was named American Horse of the Year that year and again in 2016, when he won the Dubai World Cup.
“She’s respectably bred,” Chris said. “He was quite the racehorse, but for some reason, she was overlooked in the auction. Or maybe she wasn’t. Maybe it was meant to be.”
Less than three months after she started training under Leonard, California Angel won her debut race Sept. 8 at Kentucky Downs in Franklin, Kentucky. The 28-1 longshot ran the 1-mile race in 1 minute, 37.10 seconds, winning by 2¾ lengths.
Then on Sept. 30, she finished third in a 6-furlong (¾-mile) race at Churchill Downs in Louisville. She finished in 1:09.98.
“Usually a horse’s second start, they’re a little bit nervous, so she actually hit the gate before it actually opened and was caught flat-footed and not sure what to expect,” Chris said. “(Jockey) Rafael (Bejarano) is more concerned about keeping her safe, so he kept her at the back, and he asked her to come forward, and she moved up to third.”
That set the stage for California Angel’s big breakthrough. A 30-1 longshot in the morning line, she won the JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Grade Two event Oct. 13 at Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, Kentucky.
California Angel ran the 1 1/16-mile race on Oct. 13 in 1:44.30, earning $120,000.
“We were thinking, ‘Does she even belong here?’” Chris said. “She was at the back of the field, and we thought, ‘OK, this is a mile-and-a-16th, she can pick up speed.’ She was leading with the wrong leg, and it wasn’t until late in the race that she started leading with the right leg.”
Leonard wasn’t surprised.
“I expected her to win, but for her to happen and come to fruition was very exciting,” Leonard said. “She did excellent. She’s raced extremely well from the first time I trained her. She’s come around really great. It was a dream for her to compete at the level she’s competing at for as little as we bought her for. She’s exceeded all of my expectations.”
The big invite
California Angel’s win at Keeneland in the final domestic race of the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series earned her an automatic, paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup. She ships out Nov. 1 for California.
On Nov. 5, the Juvenile Fillies Turf Grade One event will be a 1-mile race at Del Mar Race Track near San Diego.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that she likes the surface in Del Mar,” Chris said. “The rest will be in the hands of our Lord because we certainly have nothing to do with it.”
Indiana Grand in Shelbyville is giving a $20-win bet on California Angel for the first 200 customers who come through the door on race day.
Leonard trains 19 horses, mostly at Indiana Grand, and this is the first to make it big.
“I usually don’t spend a lot of money,” Leonard said. “This has been the biggest one I’ve had since I’ve been buying horses. She is the most humble horse, quiet. She has a lot of heart and a lot of stamina. She has a lot of heart and a lot of speed, which makes her exceptional.”
The Walshes learned that shortly after the sale.
“He told us, ‘This filly is something else. You’re looking at a champion,’” Chris said. “I said, ‘I’m glad you’re really high on her because we love her.’ We have been happy all along with what we’ve produced, but this is certainly over the top.”
While some fillies have competed in the Kentucky Derby over the years, most of the Derby horses are 3-year-old males. The 3-year-old fillies generally compete in the Kentucky Oaks the day prior to the Derby at Churchill Downs.
“As long as she stays sound and good and healthy, it’s a possibility,” Alan said. “It would sure be a neat possibility.”
“Now, is she good enough to run with the boys?,” Chris added. “Only time will tell. We’ll just have to see how she develops.”
Following the Breeders’ Cup, California Angel likely will get a little time to rest. The plan for now is to have her go to Louisiana in the winter, where Leonard trains and races horses from November through March.
With earnings of $213,700 in just three races, California Angel has proven to be a profitable value on that $5,500 investment.
“It’s been amazing,” Alan said. “George picked her out for us. He told Chris when they won that first race at Kentucky Downs, ‘This is a Breeders Cup horse.’ It wasn’t two weeks that he had her, he realized she was special. She really is. George knew what he was doing. He deserves all the credit for it. It’s a fun thing when they win.
“It’s just a dream come true,” he added. “You always think about it. Every time a baby is born, you think, ‘This may be a Breeders Cup winner or a Derby winner.’ We’ve had people interested in buying her, but we’re not interested in selling. We’ve had fun with her.”