Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Everything Going To Plan For Leonard And California Angel

Oct. 13, 2021 is a day that will likely live forever in the memory of trainer George Leonard III.

Standing railside at Keeneland on a balmy fall afternoon, Leonard could hardly believe his luck when 2-year-old trainee California Angel edged her competition by a head in the final strides of the Grade 2 Jessamine Stakes. The hard-fought victory was the first graded stakes and a long-awaited moment for the lifelong horseman, coming a full 30 years after he took out his training license.

“The race was awesome,” said Leonard. “It was the race of a lifetime. I played that race over 1,000 times in my mind and it came out just the way I wrote it up. I was leaning and leaning and leaning yelling, ‘Hurry, hurry, hurry!’ while she was running, but it was so exciting. The last part was just unbelievable to see her get there in time. It was a lot of relief. I was extremely happy, and things just turned out great. I couldn’t ask for any better.”

With the Jessamine win, Leonard will have to reconsider any fall travel plans on his calendar. The final domestic race for the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series, the Jessamine provides California Angel with an automatic berth in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf Nov. 5 at Del Mar.

A trip to the World Championships has, until now, seemed more of a pipe dream than a realistic prospect for Leonard, who began his career under his father, trainer George Leonard, Jr., in his home state of Louisiana.

“I’ve been in horses my whole life, my father was also a trainer, but he had a job, so we just had weekends,” said Leonard. “I went to school and before and after I would help with horses. We would race on the weekend at Delta Downs and in area tracks in Louisiana.”

For a large portion of his solo career, Leonard has been based out of Indiana, where he now keeps a 19-horse stable. While he has won several minor stakes races, he tends to keep his horses close to home, running primarily in Indiana and at Keeneland, Kentucky Downs, Churchill Downs, and other local venues.

But with her hard-running style and overall class, California Angel is a different beast from the other horses in Leonard’s barn.

A striking chestnut — like her sire and Horse of the Year, California Chrome — California Angel first appeared on Leonard’s radar in June when he attended the Ocala Breeders’ Sales June 2-Year-Olds in Training and Horses of Racing Age Sale. On this particular trip to Central Florida, Leonard was looking to buy a horse for owner and friend Chris Walsh and was immediately taken with California Angel’s demeanor and workman-like attitude.

California Angel (California Chrome) wins the Jessamine Stakes (G2) at Keeneland on 10.13.21. Rafael Bejarano up, George Leonard III trainer, Chris Walsh owner.

“I liked her athleticism and the way she walked and how she was made,” said Leonard. “She looked like she had a lot of potential. She’s a sleek, muscular filly, not overweight but with really strong muscle and a good way of moving. I just really liked her. I also liked her eye. She had a very smart eye and she just impressed me. I was glad to get her, I just had no idea that she would be as good as she turned out to be.”

Bred in Kentucky by Irish National Stud out of the winning Tiz Wonderful mare Sea Mona, Leonard purchased the filly at OBS for $5,500 from the Little Farm Equine consignment.

Sent out for her debut Sept. 8 at Kentucky Downs, California Angel broke her maiden by 2 3/4 lengths going one mile on the turf. And it was that performance that planted the Jessamine Stakes seed in Leonard’s brain that maybe this new filly had a bit more in the tank than his previous trainees.

“After she broke her maiden at Kentucky Downs, I knew she had done it with problems — a bad start. But for her to circle that field and do what she did I thought she was special,” said Leonard. “Looking forward I saw the Jessamine so I decided that we would aim for that. I gave her a race at Churchill Downs [a Sept. 30 allowance optional claiming race where she finished third] to give her a little experience and get some good work. From that I wanted to come back and put her in the Jessamine if everything went according to plan. We got lucky that it all worked out.

“Before the race even comes up there are so many factors that can happen that will get you beat. Everything has to go right for you to win. Then to win the Jessamine, it was a surreal feeling. But that’s been the thing with her from the time we bought her. Everything has gone according to plan. We haven’t had any bumps in the road which is why it has been so special. It’s so unusual for that to happen. Two-year-olds usually come down with a cold or other issues, but she’s just been a dream.”

With less than a month to go before the World Championships, a trip to the West Coast for California Angel, Leonard, and Walsh looms ahead. But while Leonard may have butterflies at the very idea of running Nov. 5, he’s more than confident that his filly can handle the trip across the country and around the California track.

“We talked about it before thinking, ‘Well, if we go to California …’ and now it’s here,” said Leonard. “It’s really happening. It’s all come to fruition. It’s all in front of us so we have to make a lot of things happen. But [California Angel] is all business. I’ve never had a 2-year-old as professional as she is. I can haul her anywhere. She very seldom does anything strange. She has a very good personality. What you look for in a horse, she has it. You would think she’s five or six. I have older horses that when I haul them, they’re so nervous, but once you put in her the trailer she’s as comfortable as she would be in her own stall.”

After more than three decades watching the Breeders’ Cup from the sidelines, Leonard is more than ready to fly West with California Angel— grateful for the filly who has blessed her connections with new opportunities and the chance to compete on the world stage.

“It’s hard to believe that I have a horse in the Breeders’ Cup,” said Leonard. “I watch the Breeders’ Cup every year, but I don’t have that caliber of horse. I don’t have four or five babies aimed at the Breeders’ Cup like others do. It’s unreal for me, but it’s such a good place to be in.”

The post Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: Everything Going To Plan For Leonard And California Angel appeared first on Horse Racing News | Paulick Report.

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