Breeders’ Cup Diaries: Leonard Awaiting The Arrival Of His Golden Girl

Today, we’re launching a daily diary following the journey of trainer George Leonard III to his first Breeders’ Cup with California Angel. The 2-year-old daughter of fan favorite California Chrome will contest the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday and has brought the longtime trainer to California for the very first time. 

Before this week, George Leonard had only seen Del Mar in photos and video. Like many of us who go racing in California for the first time, he said it’s more beautiful in person. The palm trees are taller, the surf bluer, and the stage somehow bigger than you imagine until you see it.

Leonard has been on quite the media tour in the past two weeks since California Angel was the surprise winner of the Grade 2 “Win And You’re In” Jessamine Stakes at Keeneland with a come-from-the clouds effort. Reporters from nearly every major trade publication sought out the soft-spoken man in the cowboy hat at the post position draw Monday afternoon, leaning close to hear his polite, patient answers to every question.

In a sport dominated by super stables, Leonard is a breath of fresh air for fans and turfwriters. He took out his trainer’s license in 1991 but has stayed mostly off the radar to those of us who focus our attention on graded stakes company. He followed in the footsteps of his father, who was a horse trainer mostly as a side job. The whole family raced on weekends in Louisiana, first at the bush tracks and later at Delta Downs. It has to be jarring, suddenly finding cameras and recorders in your face like this. If it is, Leonard hides it well.

“It’s an honor,” he said. “I don’t look at it as nothing but I’m blessed to get the attention that I’m getting. I’m blessed people are looking at my story. For me, it’s a great thing.

“It’s a dream come true to get the horse of a lifetime. That’s what she’s been for me — the horse of a lifetime. I’m just hoping we get bigger and better things from here.”

Leonard said he’s not worried about drawing the outside post position in the field of 14. California Angel’s win in the Jessamine brought her eight wide with a just-in-time late flight. Staying outside of all the traffic she won’t be chasing gives her more options, he figures.

“She’ll go outside and she’ll control her own fate from there,” he said. “She’s got speed. That’ll suit her just fine. It’s all up to her.

“She shouldn’t get squeezed and she’ll have dead aim from the outside. I’ll take that with a smile on my face.”

The only thing he is worried about at the moment is finding out when his horse will make it to Del Mar. The flight scheduled to take her from her Indiana base to California was delayed several times on Monday, which was supposed to be her arrival day. At the time of the draw, she was supposed to be in the barn already, but still hadn’t departed yet. Leonard knew he may be staring down a long night hanging around the barn, waiting for his prized chestnut to make her appearance. It’s impossible to know which horses will find long distance flights or travel delays stressful until they actually try it, and California Angel hasn’t had to contend with a long haul yet in her career.

As far as he can make out from the FedEx staff on the ground though, Leonard is pretty sure the logistical snafus are making him more anxious than his horse.

“When she gets here and gets in the stall, then I can relax,” he said. “Then we can start looking forward to the race. I’ll be a lot easier when she’s here.

“She’s a big fan of her hay. As long as she’s got a big hay bag in front of her, and right now, I talked to the owner earlier, she’s eating her hay and is pretty content. As long as you keep hay in front of her, she’s golden.”

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