‘Small-town boy’ set to take on rac­ing roy­alty

Del Secco, 18, sends out King of Speed in Ju­ve­nile Turf race

The Mercury News Weekend - - SPORTS - By Nick Eil­er­son Cor­re­spon­dent

John Del Secco squeezed his brown cow­boy boot firmly onto the gas pedal.

The 18-year-old’s Ford F-150— sil­ver and black, the color scheme of his fa­vorite foot­ball team— bolted out of Danville’s sleepy sub­urbs and made a hard turn west­ward onto High­way 24.

It was 4:15 a.m. on a Satur­day, and Del Secco’s mind was al­ready spin­ning. His horses awaited his care. They re­quired new grain, wa­ter, med­i­ca­tion; ban­dages needed chang­ing, legs needed rub- downs, stalls needed muck­ing.

TO­DAY

Day 1: Breed­ers’ Cup, noon, NBCSN Then he let his thoughts slip fur­ther down the road, to the rau­cous cul­mi­na­tion of so many morn­ings like this one.

“I’m a small-town boy go­ing to the big city, I guess,” Del Secco said. He was not re­fer­ring to Oak­land. On Tues­day, Del Secco flew to Louisville, Ken­tucky — the big­gest city in the world of horse rac­ing— to pre­pare for the Breed­ers’ Cup. More than 100,000 spec­ta­tors are ex­pected to pour into Churchill Downs, where thor­ough­bred rac­ing’s roy­alty will

bat­tle for supremacy in a two- day event trail­ing only the Ken­tucky Derby in pres­tige.

Del Secco, a se­nior at De La Salle High, is the rac­ing man­ager of 2-year- old King of Speed, a Los An­ge­les-based thor­ough­bred com­ing off back- to- back stakes vic­to­ries in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia this fall. King of Speed, 8-1 in the morn­ing line odds, will start from the 11th post in to­day’s Ju­ve­nile Turf race, sched­uled to go off at 2:22 p.m. PDT. To­tal purse for the race is $1 mil­lion with $600,000 go­ing to the win­ner.

No pres­sure for the young kid play­ing the old man’s game.

“I think the race is go­ing to shape up for us, and I think we’ll give it a run for the money,” said Del Secco, who will ob­serve the race from the stands. “I’m never go­ing to doubt my­self after­wards. What­ever hap­pens hap­pens.”

On many counts, Del Secco is your typ­i­cal ranch hand. His boots feed into a worn pair of blue rider jeans, and his cal­loused hands re­veal dried blood on the edges of his fin­ger­nails. He wakes up at 3:45 a. m. ev­ery day over the sum­mer — and on week­ends dur­ing the school year — to make the 45-minute drive to Golden Gate Fields, where he helps care for a hand­ful of horses, in­clud­ing two owned by him and his fa­ther, David. He feels at home strid­ing through the barns on the back­side of the race­track, and his fa­vorite mu­sic comes from Florida Ge­orge Line and Car­rie Un­der­wood.

From the waist up, though, Del Secco is your typ­i­cal high school kid: a clean-shaven face with no lines of age, a mop of thick black hair, a De La Salle cross- coun­try team pullover with the Spar­tans logo.

Del Secco does not de­scend from a long line of horse han­dlers, a rar­ity in an an­cient sport kept alive by in­her­i­tance. Sure, his dad took him to some races at Alameda County Fair­grounds when he was a kid, but the fam­ily didn’t own any horses.

That changed quickly. Del Secco ap­proached Terry Eid­son, his Re­li­gious Stud­ies teacher, af­ter class one day dur­ing fresh­man year. Del Secco knew Eid­son’s fam­ily was steeped in horse rac­ing, so they ban­tered about the Ken­tucky Derby. Then he told Eid­son he wanted to be a trainer.

“My whole ca­reer no one’s ever said any­thing like that,” Eid­son said, “so I was like, ‘Re­ally?’”

Eid­son in­tro­duced Del Secco to long­time trainer Steve Sher­man, the son of Art Sher­man, who trained Cal­i­for­nia Chrome. Sher- John Del Secco, a ded­i­cated stu­dent-ath­lete at De La Salle, walks with his fa­ther, Dave, through the sta­bles in Al­bany. man then re­ferred Del ern Cal­i­for­nia, where Bonde Secco to Jeff Bonde, a fix­plies his trade. ture in Cal­i­for­nia rac­ing for John Del Secco gets over four decades. Bonde on the phone ev­ery

Be­ing un­der the mini-day to dis­cuss his horses. mum age of 16, Del Secco John makes most of the rachad to get a spe­cial ex­emp­ing de­ci­sions, Bonde trains tion from horse rac­ing stewthe horses, David signs the ards to work as a full-time checks. groomover the sum­mer. He Since he be­gan train­ing took 4:30 a.m. Ubers to the race­horses in 1974, Bonde barn ev­ery day be­fore he says he has never en­coun-started driv­ing his pickup tered some­one so young truck. take on so much re­sponsi

Ever since that fate­bil­ity around the track. ful talk with Eid­son a few “He puts in the time. He’s years ago, John and David learn­ing the trade,” said Del Secco have gone all in Bonde, who cur­rently trains on the pony game. David’s 35 horses. “In to­day’s world con­struc­tion com­pany, Del you don’t see that much Secco DCS, Inc., cur­rently any­more.” owns 16 horses based in School­work, horse main-var­i­ous lo­ca­tions. Six of ten­ance and dis­tance run­them dwell at the famed ning don’t leave Del Secco Santa Anita Park in South----- with much time to chill with friends, but they all re­spect the hus­tle.

“I can’t imag­ine him do­ing any­thing else with his time hon­estly,” said Caitlin Ligh­tle, a se­nior at neigh­bor­ing Caron­delet High in Con­cord. “He’s one of the most am­bi­tious and driven peo­ple I know.”

Del Secco hopes to earn busi­ness and equine de­grees from the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky, and he also is con­sid­er­ing Texas Chris­tian Univer­sity. He wants to de­vote his life to rais­ing horses— buy a ranch to be­gin breed­ing and train­ing his own thor­ough­breds, maybe win a Triple Crown or two.

Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey pi­lot­ing King of Speed dur­ing his re­cent wins, was ini­tially taken aback when Bonde mat­terof-factly in­tro­duced the rac­ing man­ager 37 years Stevens’ ju­nior. But it didn’t take long for Stevens to ap­pre­ci­ate Del Secco’s ma­ture ap­proach.

“He’s got a great aura about him, a very pos­i­tive aura,” Stevens said. “I’ve won some of my big­gest races for some peo­ple that aren’t real fun to be around. Win­ning for him, it lights up my day. It makes it ex­tra spe­cial.”

For now all Del Secco can think about is Fri­day’s race and the rip­pling chest­nut colt whom he de­scribes as “a big, dumb teenager” too hard­headed to fear any­thing. King of Speed show- cased his bold streak and clos­ing speed at the Zuma Beach Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 8, when he roared past fa­vored Much Bet­ter, the colt owned by Triple Crown-win­ning trainer Bob Baf­fert, to win by 1 ¼ lengths.

Del Secco said Baf­fert later of­fered to buy King of Speed, but Del Secco’s team de­clined. The swag­ger­ing new­comer won’t fear the leg­endary trainer the sec­ond time around ei­ther, when Much Bet­ter (10-1 morn­ing line odds) starts from the No. 3 post on Fri­day.

“It’s just an­other horse and just an­other guy train­ing a horse,” Del Secco said. “Ev­ery­one’s the same to me.”

Should King of Speed tri­umph on Fri­day, Del Secco will likely stay in Ken­tucky for at least an­other day so that he can at­tend the cham­pi­ons din­ner on Satur­day.

There will be sul­tans from Dubai and own­ers with ad­vice, not to men­tion the ever- cov­eted breed­ing rights of­fers that can net tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.

But if he doesn’t win, Del Secco will turn his at­ten­tion west­ward again. His cross- coun­try team’s East Bay Ath­letic League Cham­pi­onship races be­gin at 2:30 p.m. on Satur­day.

For­tu­nately, he can sleep in. His flight doesn’t take off un­til 6 a.m.

KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

John Del Secco, a De La Salle High se­nior, works with his horses at Golden Gate Fields. He is the rac­ing man­ager of King of Speed, which will com­pete to­day at Churchill Downs.

KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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