Trainer Gary Capuano has been to the big dance, taking Captain Bodgit to the Kentucky Derby in 1997. So Capuano doesn't get overly excited about a racehorse's potential very often.
"I don't like to get ahead of myself," he said.
But when Capuano talks about Wonder Mon, the 2-year-old who beat a field of well-bred horses Saturday for his maiden victory, the Maryland trainer cannot keep the excitement from his voice.
"He wants to go two turns," said Capuano, referring to the length of a track a thoroughbred must handle to be a distance competitor and a top 3-year-old in the national limelight. "He has a lot of talent, a lot of maturity. He's a big, strapping horse and does this pretty easy. The farther he goes, the better he goes."
Wonder Mon is a Maryland-bred foaled out of Runnin Wonder, a stakes-placed earner of nearly $80,000 and a half-sister to Maryland-bred Cherokee's Boy, a million-dollar earner. His sire is Marias Mon, whose roots go back to Majestic Prince and Raise a Native.
Wonder Mon's owners, Dave Picarello and Foard Wilgis, have worked with Capuano since 1993, when they got into horse racing. They liked going to the track and had just won $4,000 in a handicapping contest.
Picarello worked for Wilgis, who coordinates the transportation department for the Teamsters union. They were working on the TV show Homicide at the time, and thought it would be fun to get a group of the drivers together to invest in a racehorse at $2,000 apiece.
When it was time to actually go to the Timonium Yearling Sale to buy a horse, Wilgis, Picarello and their friend Kenny Ziegler were the only ones brave enough to take the leap.
"We were as fly by night as they come," said Picarello, who owns a General Nutrition Center franchise in Canton. "We literally showed up at Timonium with a shoebox filled with $10,000 in cash and picked a horse I had researched for a couple days."
That was Cherokee Wonder, and they got her for $5,500.
The van driver who transported the horse from the sale that day told the new owners not to get too attached.
"He told us, 'You only paid $5,500 for her. You'll probably be running her in claiming races,'" Picarello said. "Losing her had never occurred to us."
The only one who left was Ziegler, but they already had named their operation ZWP Stable and, Wilgis said, "We just kept the name because it would have been too much trouble to change."
Wilgis, 62 and counting the days to retirement when he can spend all his time at the track, points out that Cherokee Wonder ran 57 races, "and not one was a claiming race."
Cherokee Wonder won $300,000 in purses, was a stakes winner and graded stakes-placed performer who went on to produce Cherokee's Boy and Runnin Wonder.
Cherokee Wonder died in 2001 after coming down with colic five days before the scheduled birth of her third foal, who was saved but died 12 days later.
The two men agreed it has been the only down side to their experience.
Capuano's success with Cherokee Wonder was improved upon with the Preakness horse Cherokee's Boy, who won the Grade III Salvatore Mile at Monmouth Park and is now retired to stud at the Maryland Stallion Station.
With all that and the Grade I Florida Derby-winning Captain Bodgit, who finished second by a head in the Derby and third by a neck in the Preakness, to his credit, it takes something to get Capuano excited.
"Honestly, I've never seen Gary act this way," said Picarello, 38. "He's usually very quiet. He'll say a horse worked good or OK, but he never uses the word 'impressive,' but after a work for last week's race, he said, 'Wow! That was impressive.' He's never said anything like that before."
Capuano still isn't sure what he has in Wonder Mon. After all, he has run just one race, and a short one at that (six furlongs). He beat a field that included X-Rated Cat, the second foal of champion Xtra Heat; Take a Leap, a grandson of A.P. Indy and great-grandson of Seattle Slew; and Regal Solo, by Louis Quatorze.
But Capuano said no one knows if those horses are going to be any good yet, either.
"He did show a lot of class, coming from far back, going between horses and having dirt in his face," the trainer said. "And on paper, that field looked pretty tough. We're hoping he's the real deal, and I am excited. But as I said, I don't like to get ahead of myself. Over the years, we've had horses we thought were talented that weren't."
But this is the most exciting time of the year for horsemen, the autumn of a 2-year-old's racing season. It's a time that feels almost like Christmas. Anything can happen.
It's happened to Maryland-based trainers before. Besides Capuano with Captain Bodgit, there have been Dickie Small with Broad Brush, King Leatherbury with I Am The Game, Mike Trombetta with Sweetnorthern- saint and Michael Matz with Barbaro.
"You never know what you've got until they run in the best competition," Capuano said. "But he's showing all the signs."
Will Wonder Mon go all the way to the big dance?
Picarello and Wilgis almost giggle at the very idea of it.
"If I owned a mule, I'd be dreaming big," Wilgis said.
Said Picarello: "Gary's never said this horse is a Derby horse. But he gets a glimmer in his eye every time he talks about him. He gets, I'd say, giddy."