Mage Derby Victory Brings Delgado Full Circle

The wild and wacky Kentucky Derby 149 finally is in the books, and as it turned out it wasn’t wild and wacky as much as it was written in the stars. In the end, even to the cynics who didn’t believe in a horse with only three lifetime starts, it all made perfect sense. ~ Steve Haskin

Mage Derby Victory Brings Delgado Full Circle

By Steve Haskin

Photo by Michael Clevenger and Christopher Granger/Courier Journal

It was 1971. The entire country of Venezuela was ablaze with the fire lit by a racehorse named Canonero II. The crooked-legged colt with obscure breeding who was purchased as a yearling in Kentucky for a paltry $1,200 before being sent to Venezuela had become all the rage of the racing world after his shocking victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and the amazing journey that brought him back to the United States. Sharing in the glory was a young trainer named Juan Arias, who rose from the slums of Caracas to shine on racing’s biggest stage. Everything about his training of Canonero was unconventional, including going into the colt’s stall each morning and asking him if he felt like training that day. Between Arias and his ugly duckling colt they were the laughing stock of Churchill Downs, until they became one of the sport’s greatest and most popular heroes, paving the way for racing’s golden decade of the ‘70s.

In Venezuela, Canonero’s jockey Gustavo Avila was carried through the streets of Caracas. Songs written about Canonero were played constantly on the radio. The building of a statue of the horse at La Rinconada Race Course was put in motion. People began naming their babies Canonero Segundo (Canonero the second). There was even a documentary made about the horse during the Triple Crown. And Juan Arias, despite not speaking English, became racing’s newest rock star. After arriving in New York for the Belmont Stakes Canonero was actually interviewed by Joe Garagiola of the “Today” show, who asked the horse questions and then held the microphone up to his face. It was a wild and crazy time for the Sport of Kings, which was now ruled by the ultimate pauper who had turned into a prince.

One 13-year-old youngster who, like everyone in Venezuela, was caught up in all the Canonero pandemonium was Gustavo Delgado, who hoped that one day he could experience such glory and accolades and stand atop the racing world with an equine hero like Canonero, who was known as the “Caracas Cannonball,” with the cries of “Viva Canonero!” resounding throughout the racing world.

Delgado eventually rose to the top of his profession in Venezuela and the Caribbean, winning numerous major races and the equivalent of three Triple Crowns. But the money was poor, as was the lifestyle in Venezuela, and with the help of his mentor and boyhood idol, he decided to set his goals much higher. That mentor was none other than Juan Arias, who had taken the young trainer under his wing. Arias had retired from training years earlier, but had fallen on hard times financially in the economy-plagued country and missed his days on the racetrack, so he returned just to be around the horses again and some of the old familiar faces. He took a liking to Delgado and actually began working for him, while teaching him at the same time. Even many years later, the memories of Canonero II and those amazing glory days still remained, not only with Arias, but Delgado, who still believed he could experience those feelings of euphoria and rise to racing’s greatest heights. But there was only one place to attain such worldwide fame and glory and that was the United States and a return to where it all began for Juan Arias — Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

One day, Delgado told his son and assistant, Gustavo Jr., “We should go to the United States and try to win one of those.” So, with Arias’ blessing and all he had learned from the great trainer, Delgado and his family headed for the United States, where he started a small stable in 2014, winning 45 races for earnings of just over $800,000.

But it didn’t take him long to reach his destination; the place where dreams come true. In 2016 he made it to Churchill Downs after Majesto finished second in the Florida Derby only to be beaten badly in the Kentucky Derby at odds of 21-1. Then in 2019 he returned with Bodexpress, who also finished second in the Florida Derby. But he also finished far back in the Derby at odds of 71-1. Despite the two bad showings Gustavo and Gustavo Jr. were confident in their ability to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby and win. All they needed was the right horse on the right day, and with the Derby gods smiling down on them.

To interject a little personal aspect to the story, I first became aware of Delgado in January, 2020 during the Covid outbreak. Prominent owner Rick Porter, who I had known for years, called and asked me to find him a potential Derby horse who he could purchase outright. It was obvious the horse couldn’t be owned or trained by a major player. I had just watched an Uncle Mo colt named Caracaro break his maiden at Gulfstream by six lengths in 1:35 flat for the mile and thought he had everything one looked for in a Derby horse. He was trained by Gustavo Delgado and owned by Global Thoroughbred and Top Racing, so a sale for all of the horse looked possible. I told Rick about him and he eventually got back to me and said he didn’t like the colt’s Sheets figures.

Soon after, the colt got hurt and that was the last I heard of him until he showed up six months later in the Peter Pan Stakes, getting beat a neck by Country Grammer and finishing ahead of Mystic Guide, both eventual Dubai World Cup winners. I knew then that this was a top-class colt and only an exceptional trainer could have gotten him to run such a huge race off such a long layoff. He then finished a strong second to the overwhelming Kentucky Derby favorite Tiz the Law in the Travers Stakes, run that year before the Derby. I felt off that performance he had a big shot to win the Derby, but he was injured again and retired. I was left with nothing but praise for Delgado for getting this horse so good off an injury and layoff.

The following year on August 20, 2021, Juan Arias died at the age of 83, a forlorn and forgotten hero who had helped create a legend. But he was never forgotten by Delgado, who could only mourn the loss of his friend and mentor and thank him for all he taught him.

In 2022, Gustavo Jr., who was trying to boost his career and increase his father’s presence in the hope of getting him more owners and better quality horses, and his friend Ramiro Restrepo, who was trying to make a name for himself in the bloodstock industry, joined forces and headed to Fasig-Tipton’s Timonium 2-year-old sale looking for potential runners. Gustavo Sr., now in his mid 60s, spoke little English and it was up to his son and Restrepo to get him the national exposure he deserved, and that was thorough top-class horses.

One horse who caught their eye was a chestnut son of Good Magic, who shared a barn in the Becky Thomas consignment with a highly regarded speedball by Bernardini who had torn up the track in his breeze. The Good Magic colt was also fast, breezing in :10 flat. but this was a smaller track than he was used to, starting on the turn and he had trouble changing his leads at the proper time and didn’t change them until late in the drill.

But Becky Thomas felt he was special. “He was always full of himself, just a feel-good horse,” she recalled. “He was very quick and I put one of my best riders on him. The main thing about him is that he was always a happy horse and always in his tub.”

The Bernardini colt, eventually named Hejazi, sold for a whopping $3.55 million and was sent to Bob Baffert. Then, over 200 hip numbers later, the Good Magic colt entered the ring. The auctioneer began by saying, “Hip number 592…lovely pedigree here; a colt in the ring worth a shot.” Delgado and Restrepo had a budget of $200,000. The bidding opened at $50,000 and quickly climbed to $100,000, then $150,000, and $200,000. That seemingly was it for them. The bidding stalled for a little while before picking up again at $225,000. Delgado was determined to get him and would not back down. He kept urging Restrepo to keep going. “Do not stop,” he insisted, as the bids kept climbing, but slowing down to $10,000 increments. When it hit $250,000 he had already passed his reserve and Delgado and Restrepo were going against live bids. Then $260,000, $270,000, $280,000. Still, Delgado kept pushing. “Keep going,” he said. Finally, they bid $290,000, which was followed by much welcomed silence. The hammer fell, with the auctioneer looking at them and concluding with a simple, “Thank you both.”

They had gone $90,000 over their budget and now they desperately needed to put together a partnership. They called Sam Herzberg of Sterling Racing. Herzberg had been to the Derby with a drop-dead gorgeous colt named Black Onyx, who injured himself the day before the race and was scratched Derby morning. Restrepo told him, “Sam, I just bought a horse at the Mid-Atlantic sale who I think is the best looking Good Magic in the country.” That was good enough for Herzberg, who bought in for 25 percent. Then they contacted Chase Chamberlin and Brian Doxtator of Commonwealth Sports with all their micro-shareholders and they also were in. With four partners they had their ownership.

They then sent the colt to Delgado Sr. who still trains old school and doesn’t rush his horses. After getting two months to recover from the sale he was sent to Delgado’s barn at the Kentucky Thoroughbred Training Center on Paris Pike outside Lexington, but wet weather and muddy tracks stalled the colt’s debut even further. At first, he was a bit stubborn and tough, as Becky Thomas had found out before realizing he was just playful and always wanting to go. But again once he started breezing he settled down. Finally the colt, now named Mage, meaning wizard as in magician, headed south to Gulfstream Park to Delgado’s main barn. It was assumed they would look for an easy spot for his debut, but Delgado said, “No, we’re going to run on Pegasus World Cup day,” where the competition would be much tougher. Mage responded by wiring his field by almost four lengths in a snappy 1:22 2/5 for the seven furlongs.

Knowing how good a horse this was, Delgado was confident enough in him to throw him right into the deep water against 2-year-old champion Forte in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. He needed to run in this race if he had any hopes of making it to the Kentucky Derby, even with only three lifetime starts and no starts at 2. Ironically, the first horse since 1915 to win the Derby with only three lifetime starts was Mage’s broodmare sire Big Brown. Perhaps the stars were already starting to align.

With Javier Castellano, a fellow Venezuelan, aboard for the first time in the Fountain of Youth, Mage had to go four-wide into the first turn, tracked the early pace while still wide down the backstretch, and moved three-wide on the tun to collar the leaders. Forte came charging up on his outside and quickly drew clear. But Mage kept running hard despite getting tired, finishing a solid fourth, beaten a little over two lengths for second. It was his performance that stood out in addition to the winner’s.

In the Florida Derby, Mage, with Luiz Saez aboard this time, broke slowly, as two horses came together in front of him forcing him to drop back to last in the 12-horse field. After winning on the front end and then stalking the pace, Mage now found himself at the rear of a big field with no one knowing what to expect from him. Amazingly, he put in a huge sustained run like a veteran closer and blew right by Forte on the far turn before opening a clear lead at the three-sixteenths pole. But that big early move took just enough out of him to let Forte find another gear and nail him in the closing strides. One thing Mage proved was that he could run big from anywhere on the track. And he no doubt would need that versatility in the Kentucky Derby, especially with so little racing experience.

And so it was time for Mage to leave his old Gulfstream home for the first time and take up residence in his new Kentucky home far away. But little did anyone know that he would be residing in perhaps the most hallowed structure at Churchill Downs next to the Twin Spires. And that is Barn 42, which housed the legendary Secretariat when he began the most iconic Triple Crown journey in history. On this 50th Anniversary of Big Red’s Derby triumph, once again, the stars seemed to be aligned.

When Derby Day arrived and it was time for the famed walkover, Mage put a scare into his handlers when he reared straight up in the air a couple of times. Becky Thomas, watching at home, could only smile and think, “Yep, that’s Mage, still the same feel-good, happy-go-lucky colt always looking for action.” But as usual he settled right down when it was time to get down to business.

In the Derby, Mage once again broke slowly and dropped far back, but this time would have to negotiate his way through, inside, or outside an 18-horse field with Javier Castellano back in the saddle. One horse he didn’t have to worry about was Forte, who was scratched the morning of the race with a slight foot bruise. Castellano was able to get Mage out in the clear before circling the entire field some seven-wide. He took command from a game Two Phil’s leaving the eighth pole and powered his way to a one-length victory. Delgado had his much coveted Derby victory and did it with a fellow Venezuelan, still searching for his first Derby victory.

No one was beaming with more pride than Gustavo Jr. “My dad grew up in a generation where everybody was talking about Canonero and he always felt as if he could accomplish that,” he said.

Castellano, who like Delgado is from Maracaibo Venezuela, was overwhelmed after the race. Once one of the great go-to riders in the country, he has won many major races, riding titles, and Eclipse Awards, but the Kentucky Derby has eluded him and he no longer gets the kind of mounts he used to. And that is why he is so grateful to the entire Mage team for giving him this opportunity.

“When I was in the jockey’s room before the race and NBC put ‘0‑for-15 Javier Castellano’ on the screen, in that moment, it give me so much inspiration,” he said. “And I kept thinking this is the year. I’m going to break the losing streak this year and I’m going to win the race. I felt a lot of confidence in myself. I have been describing the race to everyone and that is the way I have been dreaming it for many years.”

But it wasn’t only the horsemen, owners, and bettors who celebrated Mage’s 15-1 victory. It was also the many micro shareholders who now own a piece of a Kentucky Derby winner through their involvement with Commonwealth. One such person is Debra Krzastek, who watched the race at Monmouth Park.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “This horse came available last December in one of their offerings and all I could think of when I saw the name Mage was my mom, whose name was Marge. It was her name minus one letter. Things like this don’t happen to me. I also heard that Mage was in the same barn as Secretariat 50 years ago, so I bought a Secretariat hoodie and wore it at Monmouth. I was so astonished when he won my mouth was wide open the rest of the night.”

But to many fans and horseplayers going into the race, having only three career starts still made Mage a big question mark with his lack of experience. However, no one knew about the seeds that Juan Arias had planted inside Gustavo Delgado, especially getting horses to do things most people believe they can’t do. How could a horse who traveled to the U.S. on a plane with chickens and ducks and then had to spend 72 hours in quarantine in Florida, losing over 70 pounds, van over 1,000 miles and almost 17 hours to Louisville, arriving one week before the Derby, then come from the back of a 20-horse field to win going away with ease? And how could he come back two weeks later, go head and head with the speedy Florida Derby winner Eastern Fleet though rapid factions and put him away before drawing clear at the finish, running the fastest Preakness in history?

Perhaps the same way a horse could win a fast sprint on the lead, then make arguably the most explosive move on the far turn seen in a long time, and finally come from 16th to win the Kentucky Derby.

Gustavo Delgado and Juan Arias at La Rinconada. Photo courtesy of Salomon Gill

An emotional Gustavo Delgado said after the race while looking up to the sky, “Juan (Arias) was with me at all times.” Salomon Gill, a Venezuelan-born movie producer living in Los Angeles, who produced a beautifully made documentary on Canonero and has been trying for years to make a full-length movie about the horse, said after the Derby, “As a Venezuelan I feel very proud  and joyful. In a way I see Juan’s hand in all this. It was just so sad that he died extremely poor and didn’t get to see Gustavo rejoice at Churchill Downs the way he did 52 years earlier.”

But Arias not only left an indelible legacy through Canonero, he left another through Gustavo Delgado. And this is Delgado’s time to shine and bask in the spotlight he once dreamed of as a youngster – standing in the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby with a very special horse who was defying history and showing the world that Venezuelan horsemen are among the best in the world.

The cries that accompanied Canonero wherever he went have been silent for over half a century…until now.

“Viva Mage!”


Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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