Friday, Luis Carvajal Jr. had three runners at his New Jersey base, Monmouth Park, and needed to be there. He also needed to be at Saratoga to watch stable star Imperial Hint put in his final training session for Saturday’s Alfred G. Vanderbilt Stakes – so he did both.
“I came here in the morning, watched him train and then drove back to Monmouth Park,” the trainer said. “I got there just in time for the first one. I said I want to go because I want to win three races.”
In his next breath, Carvajal winked and came back to reality.
“I can’t do that,” he said of winning three in one day and a Grade 1 the next.
Such is the life of a smaller trainer. Each Carvajal runner at Monmouth finished second, to steamers trained by bigger names Jorge Navarro (two) and Jason Servis with the only bright spot coming when the first of the trio was declared a winner via disqualification. Navarro’s horse, who won by 7 lengths, had bumped a rival at the gate and sent the jockey to the ground. Navarro, who has 118 wins this year, told Carvajal, who has 12, that it was “a Christmas gift to you.”
Afterward, Carvajal got back on the road and was in Saratoga after midnight. Saturday, his horse of a lifetime Imperial Hint broke a storied track record while winning the Vanderbilt for the second consecutive year. Behind him came horses trained by Servis, Patrick Biancone, Steve Asmussen, Mark Hennig and Mike Maker. Combined, they’ve trained the earners of $29 million this year. Carvajal is still working on $5 million – for his career.
So what does the success of Imperial Hint say about smaller stables?
“We can do it,” said Carvajal. “We need the opportunities. People with a lot of money, you have a million dollars and want to get into the business you’re not going to go with Luis Carvajal. I wish it was different. We need more opportunities and I guess that’s the problem nowadays. Everything is shrinking – less tracks, less races, fields are smaller. We don’t get that many opportunities. Hopefully that will change.”
Carvajal’s father was a jockey in Chile, and passed an interest in horses along to his son who worked for trainers Angel Penna Jr. and Bob Durso. While with Penna, Carvajal galloped stakes horses Auntie Mame and Via Borghese among others.
“Angel trained a little hard, but the horses were ready and fit,” Carvajal said. “Every time he ran a horse they were going to be one, two. Bob Durso had a lot of claimers, he did things differently but we had success too. I learned so much from both of them. You have to listen and watch.”
With Durso, Carvajal rose to the job of main assistant, but also pursued a back-up career. He spent afternoons and off days flying planes as a pilot and nearly left racing entirely for a job as a flight instructor, but Durso planned to retire and hand the stable to Carvajal. With a boost like that, Carvajal figured his training career could soar so he came back to the barn full time. The change happened in 2006, with Durso serving in an advisory role, but didn’t last long as he died of bone cancer the next year.
Carvajal won 16 races in 2008, but labored through single-digit win totals the next seven years. Imperial Hint arrived in 2016 and changed everything – almost. The speedy son of Imperialism, owned by Raymond Mamone, has provided all six of Carvajal’s graded stakes wins and lifted the stable past $1 million in earnings last year. The business side can still be a battle, however. He moved his northern base from Parx Racing to Monmouth this year because of a lack of starts and, though he’s picked up a few additional horses (notably from Frank and Patricia Generazio), the shedrow only goes 10 deep at the moment.
“When I was in Saratoga before, it looked like everybody had 20 horses,” Carvajal said of the early 1990s. “Now it’s different. It’s hard to get the business. I have some people that have called me. They want to give me four horses but they want to do deals, ‘Can you charge me $45 a day and then we split the earnings?’ That’s what you get when you are a small trainer. Because of this horse I got horses from Mr. Generazio. He gave me a few horses, but besides that it’s been quiet.”
A horse such as Imperial Hint will keep the bills paid, and then some, and Carvajal knows he’s better off than many trainers who don’t have a championship-level horse in the barn.
“He’s always been good,” Carvajal said of the $2 million earner. “He is very smart and he has a lot of heart. He’s just a really smart horse. He runs fast, but relaxes. I’m lucky to have him.”