If only Pablo Suarez had a Rolex, wore a $500 suit or were driven around in a limo, maybe people would believe that he owns 30 thoroughbreds, has a growing breeding operation and cheered himself hoarse when Thor's Echo, the 4-year-old gelding he co-owns, won the $2-million Breeders' Cup Sprint last month at Churchill Downs.
But Suarez hardly acts the part of burgeoning racing mogul. He's 38, the son of Cuban immigrants, the father of four young children, the manager of the Yankees Pinto team that won a youth baseball championship in Santa Clarita.
A standout pitcher at West Hills Chaminade who attended Cal State Northridge and San Francisco State, he went into commercial real estate, then found himself owning a tiny distribution company, Nectar Pharmaceutical in Valencia.
In 2001, a business partner persuaded him to get into thoroughbred racing. He was part of a threesome that put up $12,500 to claim a horse named Running Thunder. Five days later, the horse finished second and was claimed for $20,000.
"I was like, 'This is easy money. This is better than the stock market,' " he said.
Trainer Doug O'Neill warned him, "They don't always work out like this," but Suarez was hooked.
His racing experience hit the heights the first weekend of November. The day after Thor's Echo had won the Breeders' Cup Sprint at 15-1, a 4-year-old filly, Sharp Lisa, sold for $3.4 million at the Fasig-Tipton sale of young mares and broodmare prospects. Suarez and two partners owned Sharp Lisa.
Thor's Echo then followed his Breeders' Cup triumph with a victory in the $300,000 Frank J. DeFrancis Memorial Dash at Laurel, Md., strengthening his case for an Eclipse Award as top sprinter.
"It's been like floating on a cloud," Suarez said. "It's been an absolute whirlwind. People you don't even know are coming up and congratulating you. I'm so happy and grateful."
O'Neill, who trains more than a dozen horses for Suarez, considers him a breath of fresh air.
"He's a little bit unique in the fact he brings a ton of energy in each claim, each private purchase or horse he breeds," he said. "He's a guy who loves life and it exudes from him. He's a great role model of how to feel good and be successful."
Twenty years ago, as a high school senior at Chaminade, Suarez became the focus of a front-page sports story for pulling off the charade of the year.
His mother refused to give him permission to play football, but his father agreed to sign the consent form, and for nine months, Suarez got away with playing quarterback while keeping it a secret from his mother.
Once, when his mother wanted to clean his bedroom closet, Suarez panicked because he kept his football equipment there.
"We had a long hallway, and I sprinted down the hallway and opened the window," he said. "I think I busted the screen to throw the stuff out."
Then Suarez suffered a separated shoulder and the secret came out. A courtesy phone call was made to his mother, informing her of the injury.
"My dad spent a couple days sleeping on the couch," Suarez said.
Horse racing is helping Suarez relive his athletic days, when he stood on the mound, adrenaline flowing, victory or defeat depending on his performance.
"The rush you get from seeing your horse in the stretch winning a race is the same you get pitching and getting out of a big inning," he said. "It's so exciting. All those juices start coming back."
Suarez is pleased that his family has become involved in racing, his children feeding carrots to the horses and his wife, Michelle, helping come up with names.
As much as he becomes attached to the horses, he understands that racing is a business. He's trying to put together a stable focusing on top fillies that can be sold or bred.
"My philosophy is, we'll let somebody else win the [Kentucky] Derby," he said. "We'll win the [filly race, the Kentucky] Oaks and sell the horse [as a broodmare] and make money."
Suarez continues to appreciate the Breeders' Cup victory.
"I feel so grateful, being in the business for five years, to win a race like that," he said. "I was talking to my wife, 'Maybe we should get out now because it doesn't get any better than this.' "