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Phil D’Amato is putting Wild About Deb in the Belmont — just one big event in his life

Trainer Phil D'Amato at Santa Anita with fiancee Sherri Marr, her daughter Jessica, and Ryan, the boy D'Amato and Marr are adopting.
Trainer Phil D’Amato at Santa Anita with fiancee Sherri Marr, her daughter Jessica, and Ryan, the boy D’Amato and Marr are adopting.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Quietly and assuredly, Phil D’Amato has become the most successful trainer at Santa Anita. He’s not flashy, he hasn’t had a Kentucky Derby horse, and people don’t generally recognize him.

On Saturday, he is expected to take a step forward in his career when he saddles Wild About Deb in the Belmont Stakes, the first horse he’s entered in a Triple Crown race.

But that’s just the warmup to his extended weekend. He has to hustle back home because at 11 a.m. on June 13, he and fiancee Sherri Marr will stand before a judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court to legally become the two most important people in a 7-year-old boy’s life.

D’Amato’s rise from longtime assistant trainer for Mike Mitchell to winning the winter meet training title at Santa Anita is laced with equal parts hard work, racing luck and improbability. Meanwhile, the young boy, named Ryan, has had less luck, bouncing among foster homes.

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Ryan is the son of Marr’s ex-husband, whom she divorced 16 years ago when her daughter, Jessie, was a year old.

D’Amato is vague when discussing why Ryan was placed in the foster system, citing “circumstances” without elaborating.

A few years ago, Jessie had met with her father and learned about Ryan and told D’Amato and Marr that they needed to do something.

“We didn’t get involved expecting to be in the situation we are now,” Marr said. “We just wanted to help out.”

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I see this little guy running around without a care in the world. ... It gives life so much more meaning.

Phil D’Amato, regarding Ryan, whom he is adopting

Phil D'Amato has become Santa Anita Park's most successful trainer.
Phil D’Amato has become Santa Anita Park’s most successful trainer.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times )

Once the reality of five foster homes hit D’Amato and Marr, they did everything they could to gain custody, parental rights and, next week, adoption.

It wasn’t easy.

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Longtime friend Aaron Gryder, an accomplished jockey, got involved.

“When they told me about the situation I wanted to help them, but I really wanted to make certain the child was surrounded by someone who truly loved them,” Gryder said.

Gryder called friend Tony Strickland, a former California state senator, who knew his way around the system.

“He [Strickland] utilized a great guy with L.A. County to make sure things were pushed through in a speedy manner,” Gryder said. “I’m sure things would have worked out regardless, but this just made it happen easier.”

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Ryan has been with D’Amato and Marr for about two years.

“We’re not actually foster parents,” Marr said. “We’re classified as family and friends. … Still, once you’re in the system, it’s a hard system to get out of.”

There were the normal adjustments.

“The first year, they want to go back home,” Marr said. “They want a mom and a dad, so that’s fine. But as soon as we got parental rights this kid changed and we changed. As soon as the adoption started, he [D’Amato] was Dad and I was Mom, even to the point of overusing it. A constant Mom, Mom, Mom, Dad, Dad, Dad. It was amazing.”

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D’Amato, 40, describes the benefits of his soon-to-be-official son in equally emotional tones.

“As a trainer, if you win one out of every four races, you’re a genius, even though you lost three races,” D’Amato said. “You’re going to lose way more than you win and you come home and you’re a little sour. But I see this little guy running around without a care in the world. ‘Hey, Dad, when are you going to throw the ball to me? When are you going to take me to baseball practice?’ It gives life so much more meaning.”

By comparison, D’Amato’s journey to near the top of the training world has been quick since he graduated from USC with a degree in political science. Instilled with a love of horse racing by his grandfather, he left Southern California in 2002 and enrolled in the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona.

“Where he’s different is he didn’t come from a horse background and didn’t have a leg up,” said Doug Reed, the program director, comparing D’Amato to a pair of former graduates. “Bob Baffert was from Nogales [in Arizona] and had been around horses much of his life, and Todd Pletcher’s family was in racing.”

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Wild About Deb, with Tiago Pereira aboard, races to a victory at Santa Anita Park on April 9.
Wild About Deb, with Tiago Pereira aboard, races to a victory at Santa Anita Park on April 9.
(Benoit Photo )

D’Amato settled into a regular routine of going to class from 8 a.m. until noon and then, with friends Raj Mutti, Cash Vessels and Justin Larsen, would head either to a bowling alley or the dog track to play the ponies.

“He was pretty solid as far as his handicapping skills,” said Mutti, who oversees seven properties for Great Canadian casinos. “A good trainer is a good handicapper because you know where best your horses fit. None of his horses are ever 99-1.”

Mutti says D’Amato was an excellent handicapper, especially in the pick 4, where he had some $10,000 to $15,000 winners.

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“I couldn’t tell you how much we did or didn’t win,” D’Amato said, in a rare bit of forgetfulness. “But we always made sure we had a good time.”

After graduation, D’Amato headed to the East Coast, where he worked for trainer Chuck Simon.

“We would go from New York to Florida to Kentucky,” D’Amato said. “After doing that for three or four years, picking up everything and moving all the time, I just got tired of it and came back to California.”

D’Amato’s mother was friends with Neil Papiano, an attorney and horse owner, who told her he knew of a trainer who just fired his assistant and was looking for a new one.

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“So I went and visited Mike Mitchell,” D’Amato said. “He was very standoffish but said because of Neil Papiano, he would give me a week’s trial. He said, ‘If I like you, great, if I don’t, you’ll have to find another job.’”

D’Amato’s trial ended after the second day and he was hired.

“We would win as a team, lose as a team,” D’Amato said. “When we won, we would go out and celebrate like I was his son. He took me under his wing and tutelage and basically taught me everything he knew.”

The relationship lasted about 10 years, with D’Amato allowed to train a few horses under his own name to get some experience and learn how to deal with owners.

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Early in his tenure with Mitchell, Marr was hired as an exercise rider and she and D’Amato secretly became a couple. Not even Mitchell knew. They wanted to keep their relationship quiet so there would be no talk of favoritism at the barn.

In the spring of 2012, there was something off about Mitchell.

“He thought he had Alzheimer’s,” Marr said. “We all did. He couldn’t remember his jacket, his keys, where he parked.”

That June, Mitchell had a cancerous tumor removed from his brain. He initially recovered, but the day-to-day rigor of running a stable was too much. In April 2014, D’Amato took over as head trainer and Mitchell stepped into an advisory role.

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“He always wanted me to do it,” D’Amato said. “I knew all his owners and they were comfortable with me. I think he knew he was getting a little bit worse and he wanted to spend more time with his family, his daughters, not knowing how much time he had left.”

Mitchell called all the owners and asked them to stay with D’Amato. Marr remembers losing one owner. D’Amato remembers losing none.

Mitchell died a year later, but by then D’Amato was well on his way to running a successful stable.

D’Amato wasn’t that interested in winning his first training title earlier this year but was talked into it.

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“With a couple weeks to go I was one or two behind Doug O’Neill,” D’Amato said. “My staff was all depressed and asking why we weren’t entering horses more aggressively. They were all ‘We need to win.’

“About two weeks out I decided if my help was this much on board, they really want to win and they are taking this much pride in it, and the owners were behind it, that I was going to give it a shot. So I turned up the aggressive thing a bit.”

D’Amato ended up beating O’Neill, 41 wins to 34, despite saddling 39 fewer horses. D’Amato has a comfortable lead in the spring meeting too.

“I respect him a ton,” O’Neill said. “He’s a real hard worker, a bright cerebral guy. To be Mike’s right-hand guy for such a long time you’ve got to be good. Racing could use more guys like him.”

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Longtime friend Mutti laughs when he thinks back to their college days and what would follow.

“Not to offend him, but to think he would be the top trainer in the Southern California circuit, 11 years ago,” Mutti said, “no one would have thought that.”

D’Amato volleyed back.

“And I would say the same about him,” he said of the successful casino executive.

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“When I was at the University of Arizona with all my friends,” D’Amato said, “I’d say, ‘Someday I’m going to win the Kentucky Derby.’ They all laughed at me. But I think I’m on a path to have a shot at that someday. I work seven days a week to compete with the best of the best.”

Not seven days next week. He’s got to spend part of a Monday in court. He needs to see a judge about a boy.

Follow John Cherwa on Twitter: @jcherwa

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john.cherwa@latimes.com


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