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Hernandez Will Seek Second Belmont Upset on Imperious Spirit

Times Staff Writer

The horse was bought for only $10,000, has won just two races in his life and has never been better than second in a stakes race.

The trainer is a mere 28, has had a license for less than a year and has saddled only five winners.

So why is Imperious Spirit running in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes? That’s what many railbirds are asking, since he’ll be trying to beat Ferdinand, the Kentucky Derby winner and second-place finisher to Snow Chief in the Preakness; trainer Woody Stephens, who with Danzig Connection is trying to win his fifth straight Belmont; Mogambo, who was second to Snow Chief in the Jersey Derby; and Rampage, the Arkansas Derby winner.

Imperious Spirit’s only Belmont connection is tangential. His jockey, Ruben Hernandez, scored an upset in the 1979 race, winning with Coastal and preventing Spectacular Bid from sweeping the Triple Crown series.

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Hernandez, a former regular in New York who invaded the Southern California circuit last year, has ridden Imperious Spirit only in his last two races, to second place behind Vernon Castle in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields, and to a last-place showing in the Will Rogers Handicap at Hollywood Park.

Both Hernandez and Kenny Jumps, Imperious Spirit’s young trainer, are throwing out the colt’s performance in the Will Rogers, which was the horse’s first start on grass.

Asked if there was any way he could register his second Belmont upset, Hernandez said: “The only horses that don’t have a shot to win are the ones that aren’t running in the race. This horse comes from behind, it’s a mile-and-a-half race, and he should be running good at the end. The early pace shouldn’t be fast. Who knows how he’ll do?”

Hernandez, who has ridden in seven Belmonts, remembers how futile it seemed to run against Spectacular Bid in 1979. Spectacular Bid had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and was favored to follow Seattle Slew and Affirmed as the third Triple Crown champion in as many years.

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“Nobody could see Spectacular Bid getting beat in the Belmont,” Hernandez said. “And I thought the same way. He looked unbeatable. But Coastal had won the Peter Pan by something like 13 lengths shortly before the Belmont, and he was just as good on Belmont day.”

Even if his race in the Will Rogers is disregarded, Imperious Spirit still looks like a gate-crasher in the Belmont. His only win last year was against maidens, his one victory this year was in allowance company, and his stakes appearances have not been impressive.

Imperious Spirit was a far-back fourth last year in the Hoist the Flag at Hollywood Park and beat only one horse in the Hollywood Futurity. This year, Icy Groom beat him by 2 lengths in the Bradbury at Santa Anita, and Imperious Spirit was fifth, nine lengths behind the victorious Snow Chief, in the Santa Anita Derby.

It cost Don Mangano, the city of Orange investor who owns Imperious Spirit, a late fee of $3,000 to make the Kentucky-bred son of Magisterial and Plenty Smart eligible for the Triple Crown races. Early nominations cost only $600 for the series.

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At least Imperious Spirit is keeping good company at Belmont Park this week.

He’s in the same barn as Ferdinand, a barn regularly occupied by Dick Lundy, once an assistant to Charlie Whittingham, the trainer of the Derby winner. Lundy now trains for Virginia Kraft Payson, who bred Imperious Spirit.

Jumps, who took a backstretch job at Hollywood Park several years ago when a shortage of money halted his plans to become a veterinarian, acquired Imperious Spirit from Bill Heaton in February, shortly before the colt’s first and only win of the year.

“When we nominated this horse for the Triple Crown, it was with the Belmont, not the Derby and the Preakness, in mind,” Jumps said. “The distance of the Belmont should fit this horse’s style.”

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Hernandez, struggling at Hollywood Park this season with only five wins in his first 100 mounts, got the California Derby assignment on Imperious Spirit after Jumps became dissatisfied with Frank Olivares’ ride on the colt in the Santa Anita Derby.

Hernandez, who knows the wide, sweeping turns at Belmont Park as well as any jockey, including Ferdinand’s rider, five-time Belmont winner Bill Shoemaker, also knows where he wants to be with Imperious Spirit on Saturday.

“We should be fifth or sixth (among nine horses) early,” Hernandez said. “Ferdinand and Rampage will be making their moves at the end. Maybe we will be, too.”

Should lightning somehow strike twice for Ruben Hernandez in the Belmont, it would be a bigger surprise than Coastal’s shocker in 1979. Spectacular Bid’s spoiler went off at 4-1. Imperious Spirit will about 20 times that Saturday.

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