Saffie Joseph Jr – Bajan trainer making his mark at Gulfstream Park

Horse Racing

Saffie Joseph Jr – Bajan trainer making his mark at Gulfstream Park

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

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The son and grandson of successful trainers in his home nation, the Caribbean island Barbados, Saffie Joseph Jr had always wanted to follow in their footsteps.

The family is well known in that racing community with more than 50 years' worth of involvement. There, Joseph says, training is more of a hobby than a career.

You do it because you love it. You do it because you have a passion for taking care of horses and watching them run. But you don't fully make a living from it. There just aren't enough races to make Barbados' circuit something akin to Gulfstream Park, where Joseph has taken hold of the trainer race at this early point in the Championship Meet.

Recent stakes winners such as the promising three-year-old Chance It, the former claimer Tusk and Island Commish, a budding sophomore on the turf, are the result of Joseph's lifetime around horses and a decision made to leave home for this career.

“Since I was six-years-old, I'd help clean the stalls, walk the horses, grease their feet and bathe them,” Joseph said. “And when my dad would train them on the beach, I'd run behind them smiling and laughing. Of course I was a bit lighter back then — not like I am today. It was so much fun.

“My dad's grooms would help me with the horses, teach me what to do and how to do it. I loved it. I'd spend the whole day thinking about horses. They were my best friends back then. I knew this is what I wanted to do.”

But, as parents tend to do, they had other ideas, preferring Joseph head to the United States as a student. He spent two years at prep school before enrolling for a year at Florida International University.

“But I didn't continue,” Joseph said. “In those three years I probably spent more time at Calder and Gulfstream than I did at school.”

Joseph returned to Barbados to begin his training career. Success followed quickly, as at age 22 he became the youngest conditioner to win Barbados' Triple Crown. Areutalkintome was the sixth horse overall to accomplish the feat.

It's that horse Joseph planned to bring back to Florida and “put me on the map early”.

“I knew I had a really good horse and I wanted to find out how good he was by racing him against the best,” Joseph said. “I had already done his blood work and everything else. Crazy enough, one morning he was jogging on the track and two other horses were working.”

There were just three horses on the track, and one of the workers ran into the back of Areutalkintome, dying instantly. Areutalkintome got loose, Joseph said, “but we caught him quick enough”.

“He survived the accident,” the trainer added, “but it took him about a year to heal up and get back to racing. He still won some pretty big races in Barbados afterwards, but I never brought him over. I think the accident pushed me to come here quicker. It was time to go. Otherwise I may have procrastinated and stayed in Barbados a bit longer.”

Joseph arrived in January of 2011 to get his trainers licence. He flew back to Barbados, told his wife it was time to move to America, and so they did the next month.

“We only had two horses I brought over from Barbados: Go Zapper a son of Ghostzapper, and Artefacto, a son of Officer,” Joseph said. “I couldn't get stalls down here, so I went up to the Ocala OBS sales and bought five more two-year-olds. A friend of mine, Ricky Griffith, a trainer from Canada, recommended another horse, so we started with a stable of eight — all two-year-olds except for Artefacto; he was three.

“Maybe not the best way to start, as it takes time to get them to run.”

Go Zapper became the barn's first US starter, finishing seventh on April 10, 2011, at Tampa Bay Downs. Artefacto, however, debuted with a victory for Joseph at Calder that June 19. And Joseph kept going, with Joseph seeing his barn take off the last year-and-a-half.

“My owners started referring me to other owners and I just started getting better horses through word of mouth,” he said, saying 80 per cent of his clients have come through referrals. “Right now we have 65 horses. I'm very fortunate to be where I am. My dad is still involved. I speak with him all the time and can rely on him. He's my toughest critic — still demands more from me than any of my owners do.

“My goal is to try to be the best trainer in the world. People ask me, 'What do you like to do away from the track? What are my hobbies?' And I tell them nothing. I like hanging out at my barns with my family and horses. That's where I want to be. I really enjoy it.”

With 15 wins entering Wednesday's card, Joseph is one ahead of trainers Jorge Navarro and Todd Pletcher for the Gulfstream lead. Thanks to a recent series of stakes victories, his US$633,560 in purse money earned is well in front on the list.

More top quality runners are still to come, namely Math Wizard, a former claimer who won the 2019 Pennsylvania Derby (G1) in what was Joseph's first Grade 1 race.

“One of the biggest reasons it happened is because of the owner, John Fanelli,” Joseph said. “He always wants to take a chance. It all started with the Wood Memorial; John wasn't scared to take a chance. He proved he belonged in the Wood. He tired a bit in the stretch, and we got nipped for third, finishing fourth in a really good field.

“…When Maximum Security scratched out of the Pennsylvania Derby, we decided to take a shot. Realistically I didn't think we were going to win. We were hoping for second or third — just hoping he would run good and come out healthy. But turning for home, he just kept coming and coming, and we got up in the last couple of jumps to win.”

Math Wizard hasn't run since finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic on November 2, 2019 at Santa Anita Park, a move by design after he started 10 times last season. The February 29 Saudi Cup, an inaugural US$20-million race, is likely next on his agenda, though connections also hold an invitation to the January 25 Pegasus World Cup (G1), the US$3-million race in their backyard.

“There's a slight chance he runs in the Pegasus,” Joseph said, “but our main target is the Saudi Cup. If we don't run in the Pegasus, we'll just train him up to the Saudi Cup. And then from there we will look at our options.”

Joseph last year won three of four Gulfstream training titles — all but the Championship Meet claimed by Navarro. Before that, Pletcher sat atop the Championship Meet standings 15 years in a row.

“This year we are set up for more success,” Joseph said. “We have a plan in place. It took some time to build this, and I didn't want to blow it by moving too fast. We plan to branch out a bit more with a larger string of horses to Kentucky and New York — and God willing we'll have a nice meet at Saratoga this year.”


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