Smokey Image wins California Cup Derby with new trainer

Sitting at his home in Hurricane, Utah, trainer Greg James had his eyes locked on the television, watching a horse race some 390 miles away at Santa Anita.

His emotions were mixed, though heavily leaning toward happy. He was watching Smokey Image, who until a few months ago had been a fixture in his barn in Northern California, win the $250,000 California Cup Derby on Saturday.

“I was very happy for him,” James said by phone. “He’s a nice horse. He’s been a nice horse since his first 5/8th [mile] workout.”

Win doesn’t quite capture the 3-year-old colt’s performance. He blistered the field of seven by 8 1/2 lengths without ever being asked to run hard. Jockey Victor Espinoza almost slowed him down to a gallop through the stretch.


The unbeaten Smokey Image is now officially on the Kentucky Derby trail. The last horse to come out of this restricted race for California breds and look to Triple Crown races was California Chrome two years ago. He went on to win in Kentucky and then the Preakness Stakes.

It’s not unusual for horses to change trainers. But James led the horse to five wins in five starts, four of them stakes races.

He did nothing wrong. Losing the horse is just the reality of racing.

“I had him turned over,” James said with emphasis. “I told her all his races were down there [Southern California] and he would be better off just being down there. … Of course, you have regrets, but I knew she wanted him down there. Before she told me, I gave her the out.”

The her, in this case, was Diane Irvin, racing manager of Irvin Racing Stable and daughter of owner Betty Irvin.

"[Sending the horse south] became the plan when we thought we had something special,” Diane Irvin said. “And Greg James did a great job, but Greg James has a small operation. He has Northern California and he has Utah. We knew the horse had to run in Southern California.

“It’s all about the horse, it’s not about anybody else.”

The next step for Smokey Image is probably the San Felipe at Santa Anita on March 12. It will be the first time he has faced open (non-Cal bred) horses.


The beneficiary of the barn switch has been trainer Carla Gaines, who took over in early November.

“I’ve gotten to know him pretty well,” Gaines said of Smokey Image. “And I guess as far as his acclimation, it’s more about facing open horses, the Derby trail horses. Our test today maybe wasn’t a complete, true test, but just to see how he handled the two turns.”

Gaines has been in touch with both James and his assistant trainer.

“She called me about an hour before the race and said she was nervous,” James said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll win.’”


Do the conversations mean James is still part of the team?

“No, I’m really not,” he said. “I’m completely out of the picture.”

James was thanking a reporter for being the only one to call him when he received a text from Gaines.

“Greg, thanks so much. You developed him. I owe you. XO.”


That recognition made James feel good.

“It’s like losing a good best friend,” James said of Smokey Image. “We knew he was good. But it was just too much to ship him back and forth.”

James will continue to root for the horse, and when asked said he would be open should anyone want to send him a ticket to possibly the Santa Anita Derby, and if all the stars align, the Kentucky Derby.

“That would be cool,” he said.


Follow John Cherwa on Twitter @jcherwa