‘Small-town boy’ set to take on racing royalty
Del Secco, 18, sends out King of Speed in Juvenile Turf race
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.
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.
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.