Manny Azpurua

Manny Azpurua, the trainer for Social Inclusion. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun / May 8, 2014)

Manny Azpurua knows how different his life would have been had he gone from a military academy near Syracuse, N.Y., to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

His father, also named Manny, had sent his then-teenage son to the United States from their native Venezuela with the hope that the youngster wouldn't follow him into horse racing.

But after checking out West Point for two weeks, the younger Azpurua decided not to enroll. He returned to Venezuela, where he followed in the hoofprints of his father, who was considered one of the country's top breeders and trainers.

Now 85, Azpurua trains Social Inclusion, who finished third in Saturday's Preakness.




"I have a lot of good horses, then and now," Azpurua said earlier this week. "My wife asked me, 'Can you talk to the horses?' I say: 'Yes, I talk to them the way they can talk.'"

After winning 247 stakes races and around 2,500 total in Venezuela, where horse racing is a close second to baseball in terms of popularity, Azpurua eventually returned to the United States in the late 1970s, working mostly in Florida.

It was there that his connection with horse owner Ron Sanchez, another Venezuelan, took hold three years ago.

Their relationship produced a number of successful thoroughbreds, but none until Social Inclusion had made it to the starting gate of a Triple Crown event.

Getting to Pimlico Race Course was the culmination of a nearly lifelong dream for Azpurua, who had a chance to oust the legendary "Sunny" Jim Fitzsimmons as the oldest trainer of a Preakness champion. Fitzsimmons was 82 when he saddled Bold Ruler in Baltimore in 1957.

Recalling his earliest memories in the sport, Azpurua talked about his father's influence.

"When I was 7 years old, I always running with him around horses," Azpurua said. "He had one of the best fillies; she won 38 races out of 46. After he died [in 1949], I stopped training, because he didn't want me to become a trainer."

Azpurua, the eldest of three sons, eventually felt pressure to keep the family business going. He sent one of his younger brothers, Leo, to the United States "about 10 years" before Azpurua came himself.

"I promised myself I was going to go back to the [United] States," he said.

His relationship with Sanchez seemed like a natural, given their backgrounds.

After Social Inclusion won his first two races before finishing third in the Wood Memorial, Sanchez, 43, reportedly was offered $8 million for the horse. He eventually a sold a share of the horse back to its original owners, Black Swan Stables, but retained Azpurua as trainer.

"It's something that I appreciate and I never am going to forget," Azpurua said. "Horses today are worth a lot of money. They are like a crystal cup; they can break in a second. I told him, 'Don't stop anything that's good for you.' They offered too much money."

Sanchez said he didn't want to take away Azpurua's "dream of a lifetime." Sanchez became aware of Azpurua nearly 20 years ago but didn't start working with him until moving his operation to Florida.

"He was famous," Sanchez said. "I was much younger and he was training a filly named Blondie and I was a big fan of hers. She won every stake down there. I said: 'Someday, he's going to train for me.'"

don.markus@baltsun.com

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