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ARCADIA, Calif. -- Look, Eric Guillot is no slick-speaking showman. He walks around Santa Anita Park in hooded sweatshirts and checkered shorts, opining in good ol' "Loosiana" tones while his horses flash on by. He makes voodoo dolls to pin bad mojo on rival conditioners, promising this week to create one of Hall of Fame horseman Bob Baffert -- "I'm gonna put some little tight-ass designer jeans and put the white hair, maybe dust off the one I have of Todd Pletcher too." On the Breeders' Cup backside where buttoned-down trainers cater to big-money clients, it's easy to view him as a sideshow attraction.
But let me tell you about Moreno, Guillot's runner for the Breeders' Cup Classic. It's a real simple fact: That hoss can run.
Earlier this year, pontificating on the glories of the sophomore gelding -- who at that point had won only his maiden and the Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes in what many considered to be a fluke score -- Guillot, 51, called Moreno the most talented 3-year-old in the country. This about a horse who took 10 tries to finally win a race, on June 8, which happened to be the same day as the Belmont Stakes.
Owners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont winners shook their heads; it was an outrageous claim for a runner who had gotten a tremendously late start to the season.
Then it turned out to be true.
This summer, Moreno jumped up and ran third in the Jim Dandy, second in the Travers and second in the Pennsylvania Derby -- better than the Triple Crown race winners did. Even though Moreno still has only two wins, Guillot is not about to let them forget his solid efforts, no siree.
"Hello!" he remarked on a cloudy morning at Santa Anita, just days away from saddling his first-ever Classic contender. "It's only bragging if you can't back it up, right? That horse ran huge in the Travers and the Pennsylvania Derby. Huuuu-ge."
Moreno the horse is named after Moreno the man -- Mike Moreno, Guillot's partner in Southern Equine Stable. It is a racing, breeding and sales operation run by Guillot, the human Moreno and the trainer's older brother Sidney "Chip" Guillot. Instead of just taking horses from clients after they've been purchased at the sales or bred by owners, Guillot and his partners do it all. In just their second year of breeding homebreds to race, they produced Moreno -- a speedy horse who often goes straight to the lead and never seems to tire. In the 1¼-mile Travers, the same distance as the Classic, the gelding fought on tenaciously before just getting passed by fellow Classic contender Will Take Charge on the wire.
"I knew he was a good horse before he ever ran, just as a 2-year-old," Guillot said dryly. Then, unable to help himself, he rolled off into a tall, tall tale.
"Everybody's trying to figure out what made the difference in the horse from that to this. I told them the problem is, the first 12 races or so, he thought he was named after my partner and friend Mike Moreno. But I whispered in his ear and told him he was named after the great Dan Marino, Hall of Fame quarterback, and then he went to runnin'. But if he was named Guillot, he would have won the Dwyer by 20 lengths instead of seven."
Everyone in racing has an image. Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is the iconic cowboy, a legend. Fellow Hall of Famer Baffert, that wry comedian and weaver of yarns, is California cool. Guillot is a bold-faced braggart who, more often than not, seems to open his mouth and insert an open toe sandal-clad foot. Still, that perception doesn't seem to bother him.
"People always laugh at me," he said in earnest. "I say things they only wish they could say. I don't care. I'm the most secure person on earth."
Lukas wasn't laughing in August when Guillot filed a complaint with the New York State Racing and Wagering Board alleging that jockey Luis Saez used an electric buzzer aboard Will Take Charge in the Travers, the summer's most prestigious race for 3-year-olds. Guillot's controversial claim against the young rider of Will Take Charge, who defeated Moreno in the Travers by a nose and in the Pennsylvania Derby by 2¼ lengths, riled up fans and members of the media and outraged the connections of the long-striding chestnut colt. If Guillot ever wore a cowboy hat, these past few months it would have been black.
"The racing and wagering board declared the suspicions to be unfounded after a thorough investigation, and Saez's name was cleared in early October. But the racing world is still talking about the drama Guillot caused when his brother pointed out what he believed to be suspicious actions taken by the rider in the gallop out after the Travers wire.
Mr. Lukas, I'd like to formally apologize on national TV. My emotions got the best of me." -- Trainer Eric Guillot
Guillot apologized to Lukas for the incident publicly at a news conference after the Classic post position draw at Santa Anita on Monday afternoon -- as much as Guillot is capable of apologizing, that is. Seated down the table from each other before a media scrum, the gentlemen engaged in an entertaining, if somewhat uncomfortable, exchange.
"Mr. Lukas, I'd like to formally apologize on national TV," Guillot said. "My emotions got the best of me. I looked it over; it was a bad video. But I'd do it all over again. I thought that's what the complaint department was for."
"I accept [the apology]," Lukas said. "We just need to turn the page."
And that was that.
Or was it? Heading into the Classic at Santa Anita on Nov. 2, where a purse of $5 million and potential 3-year-old championship honors are on the line for Will Take Charge, the rivalry continues on the racetrack. It could even go beyond the Breeders' Cup, as Guillot and Lukas have both said they would like their runners to eventually contest the Dubai World Cup in March.
One thing's for sure, Lukas and Guillot won't be sharing cocktails -- or a Cajun-style crawfish boil -- any time soon. Looking back during private interviews, Guillot said he feels bad about the emotional toll it took on Saez, whose integrity was called into question. The young rider, a 21-year-old Panama native who earned his first Grade 1 victory in the Travers, had his locker searched and was called in for questioning as the racing and wagering board reviewed photos, films and testimonies to determine whether he used the forbidden device.
"If I had to do it all over again, would I take my time to do it [differently]?" Guillot said. "A lot of it was driven by emotion when it first happened. It was a hard defeat. That's a race I've always wanted to win, the canoe painted and all that crap. Look, I'm human. But people who know me know me, and people who don't know me don't know who I am."
Eric Guillot was born Jan. 3, 1962, in New Iberia, La., 20 miles south of Lafayette. Horses were a part of his childhood. He remembers riding as a 5-year-old, growing up in a place where the names of Hall of Fame jockeys like Desormeaux, Dellahoussaye and Romero were household lingo if not related to someone in the family in some way.
"I always said they're lucky Guillot weighs 275 and not 112, because they would never have heard their names mentioned again," the trainer said with a laugh. "I grew up in the game. I been having horses all my life."
Guillot recalled stealing his older sister's Volkswagen as a 12-year-old, pushing it 100 yards away from the house so she wouldn't hear it start. He drove off with friends to match races to bet the money he made from collecting bottles and cutting grass. The races were run with little policing, no pari-mutuel sanctions. The wildness was part of the fun.
"We'd go gambling, lose about 40, 50, 60 bucks, so I got my 'addicted to gambling' thing out of my system early," Guillot said. "I realized I work too hard for my money to go and gamble it all away. I learned my lesson. But those match race places were fun as s--- growing up. Horses were a way of life for me."
"He tried to leave it in the early '80s, moving to California to work as a general contractor. By the time he was 25, he had two beachfront properties and a farm, was making good money and hated every minute of it. He flamed out, lost his contractor's license and struggled with a meth addiction. When he turned back to his roots, the horses, his life started to make more sense. In 1991, he took out a training license and went out on his own.
I realized I work too hard for my money to go and gamble it all away. I learned my lesson." -- Trainer Eric Guillot
"I chased my dream, and it was tough," Guillot said. "Back then, there were only a few of us under the age of 25, 26 years old. The game was all the old-timers. I don't come out here and work for someone. I came straight here from Louisiana thinking I knew more. I'd lease a little California-bred with a bowed tendon or something wrong, put him in the round pen and on the hotwalker machine at my little farm. Every Saturday, I'd take my horse trailer, go to San Luis Rey Downs, get in an official work. When I first got my license out here, the stewards didn't know who I was -- but I passed the test. They made me have to go to the fairs. The first horse I ever run was at Stockton."
It didn't take long for him to saddle his first stakes winner. In 1992, he took the Grade 3 Triple Bend Handicap, a race worth $100,000 at Hollywood Park, with Slew the Surgeon. From 1998 to 2000, he cleaned up in restricted and open company with multiple graded stakes winner Show Me the Stage. Hello Lucky was another graded winner in 2007. Salute the Sarge took the Grade 2 Best Pal, among other victories, that year as well and went on to become a popular Louisiana stallion.
In 2009, Guillot collected his first Grade 1 victory with Santa Teresita in the Santa Maria Handicap. Mi Sueno was his second Grade 1 winner, also in 2009. And in 2010 there was Champagne d'Oro, who took the Acorn Stakes and Test Stakes.
To date, his runners have earned $9,086,700 with 228 wins.
"And it's only just begun. That's the beauty of it," said Guillot, who has 18 horses in training and 37 mares in his broodmare band near Midway, Ky. "The homebreds are getting better. I've got to pick one out of the pasture and name it after me, but I don't know which one yet. I'm going to wait 'til they start breezing like Moreno, wait 'til they're real good."
It is the seventh year in a row he has run in the Breeders' Cup, the first time in the Classic and the first time with two contenders; he'll also saddle Teaks North in the $3 million Turf. For Guillot, these past few days have been all about juggling the storm he constantly seems to stir along with the media attention and the preparation of his horses. Contrary to appearances, his highest priority really is the latter.
"I work every bit as hard as guys who have 150 horses, but I do it in a different format," he said. "Trust me, I stay busy. You gotta make your own destiny."
That, in fact, is also what Moreno has done. Credited by his trainer as extremely intelligent and talented, the late-blooming gelding protected himself when battling soundness issues before starting to round into form in the second half of this year.
"He had more problems than a fifth-grade algebra class," Guillot said. "But he was a thinker. If he wasn't 100 percent sound, if he had one little issue ... you know, he was just too smart [to run hurt].
"But when he turned 3 and started getting sounder, all his issues went away and he started building up his confidence and his races started getting better and better and better. His confidence level is through the roof right now. He's going in the right direction as an older horse."
To have a contender in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race worth $5 million and center stage on one of the racing world's biggest days, is an opportunity any trainer would want to grab. But for Guillot, the chance is also to prove himself as a horseman and a sportsman, one who -- in spite of his outrageously outspoken nature -- should be taken just as seriously as the suave rival outfits he's up against.
"To have one in the Classic ... that's the real deal," he said. "That's how Guillot does, though. I do s--- in big ways. It wouldn't surprise me if I won at 30-1."
Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning turf writer who covers horse racing for The Blood-Horse magazine in Lexington, Ky. Follow her on Twitter @bh_cnovak and read more of her work at bloodhorse.com.