It is the great story of the understudy getting that one shot to step in for the star. One shot to step into the spotlight. And maybe even stay there.
When Drew Bledsoe got hurt, in came Tom Brady. Wally Pipp was replaced by Lou Gehrig. Phil Fulmer less elegantly for Johnny Majors.
On the other hand, sports are full of one-hit wonders like Jeremy Lin, Clint Longley and Joe Charbonneau.
So which one will Abel Cedillo be?
The 31-year-old native of Guatemala has been establishing himself as a reliable, professional jockey around southern California. With Luis Sáez one of the many jockeys sidelined by the coronavirus, Cedillo enters on a big stage this weekend, riding a horse that may have no equal.
“This is my really good dream,” Cedillo said this week. “I’m going to get on the best horse in the world. That’s awesome.”
Cedillo was called on by trainer Bob Baffert to pilot the comeback of star-crossed champion Maximum Security in the $150,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. The six horses competing in open company are scheduled to race the 8½ furlongs Saturday at 9:30 p.m. EDT.
The race was pushed back a week because of the recent glut of positive COVID-19 tests this month in the southern California jockey colony. Sáez, who has ridden Maximum Security’s last seven starts, had been Baffert’s first choice. Mike Smith would have been the second, but he was committed to riding in the Haskell Stakes on last week’s original date for the San Diego Handicap.
“I asked around with different agents who was open, and I didn’t really want to take anybody else’s rider,” Baffert said last week. “So I just waited. And Cedillo was on a horse (Sharp Samurai) that Mark Glatt wasn’t sure he was going to run. He said, ‘If you run Max, I’m not going to run.’ So I waited get the OK from the owners for (Cedillo) to ride Max.”
But 6-year-old turf specialist Sharp Samurai was indeed entered for what will be his first race on dirt in more than three years. Rather than undo the change, Glatt turned to jockey Jorge Vélez. Cedillo keeps the ride on Maximum Security, the 2019 champion 3-year-old male that is racing for the first time in nearly five months.
“When my agent (Tom Knust) told me, ‘I think we got a chance to ride Maximum Security,’ I was like I can’t believe it,” Cedillo said. “Why does he want to give me the opportunity? There’s a lot of good jockeys out there. I was surprised.”
Maybe he should not have been. On his third try to establish himself in southern California, Cedillo is coming off a career year. It continued into his finishing second in the jockey standings during the Santa Anita meet that ran from December to June – minus a pause for the pandemic. His 61 winners for $3,771,078 were topped only by Flavien Prat.
“He’s a strong rider,” Baffert said. “He’s aggressive. He’s won some races for me, and he seems like he can handle pressure when you ride a top horse like that. So I’m just happy that I have him here.”
Cedillo knows that he has a tough challenge measuring up to Sáez, who has ridden Maximum Security to first-place finishes in six of seven starts. One of them, of course, was the notorious disqualification from victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby. But they also included official Grade 1 triumphs last year in the Florida Derby, Haskell and Cigar Mile.
“Luis is one of my favorite riders, and he’s like my hero jockey,” Cedillo said. “I’m really good friends with him. I’m going to ask him how he rides this horse, how he warms up. Is he sharp, or does he need a little help when he breaks from the gate?”
It is not like Cedillo can turn to Baffert to find out anything beyond what he has seen on race videos. That is because Baffert only got Maximum Security from owners Gary and Mary West in March. That was 11 days after the colt sired by New Year’s Day won the inaugural running of the $20 million Saudi Cup – and one day after his former trainer Jason Servis was indicted in a federal sting that targeted illegal drugging of racehorses.
“I don’t like the circumstances the way I got the horse,” Baffert said. “But he couldn’t be training any better, and I really expect a big effort from him.”
It may not be a glorified workout for Maximum Security (1-1), even if he is a short-priced favorite on the morning line. Baffert has entered a speed horse – restricted-stakes winner Ax Man (8-1) – to keep him company early in the race. Twice a first-place finisher in graded stakes, Midcourt (4-1) may stalk the pace for John Shirreffs. John Sadler’s Grade 1 winners Higher Power (7-2) and Combatant (6-1) will come from off the pace as will Sharp Samurai (12-1).
Maximum Security is the clear class of the race, putting that much more pressure on Cedillo. But he has ridden three Grade 1 victories since last fall, most notably on the late Mongolian Groom at odds of 25-1 in the 2019 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.
His recent success has made Cedillo’s move from Central America worth the separation from a family that he has not seen since he was a teenager.
“It’s been 14 years that I haven’t seen my mom,” he said. “We are so poor. We have to work really hard to make money to eat for one day. That’s why I came from Guatemala. Because here I have a really good chance to work and make money and to help the family.”
If the pandemic is resolved by then, Cedillo hopes to reunite with his mother, his father and his two sisters next year. Between now and then he fully expects Sáez will have resumed riding Maximum Security. So he is grateful to have this chance – this one chance.
“I feel pretty lucky,” he said. “I think God has helped me a lot, too.”
Racing notes and opinions
The last time he raced at Saratoga, Whitmore (2-1) won the Grade 1 Forego Stakes. That was two summers ago. At age 7, the Ron Moquett-trained gelding will be one of the two top-weight horses in the field of only five for Saturday’s $250,000 Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. The six furlongs are the very distance at which Whitmore has won his last two starts, including an Oaklawn Park Grade 3 in April. Also carrying 123 pounds, lightly raced Mind Control (6-1) looks for his fourth consecutive fast-track victory. Coming off his Grade 2 sprint win last month at Belmont Park, Firenze Fire (4-1) was assigned 122 pounds. The choice here, though, will be the chalk. Volatile (4-5) is Steve Asmussen’s $850,000 speed horse that won his two races so far this year by a combined 15½ lengths. That included his eight-length score in last month’s Aristides at Churchill Downs. This will be his graded-stakes debut, so I am guessing/hoping that he will go off at even money or longer. With fair weather expected, the Vanderbilt is posted for Saturday at 6:16 p.m. EDT.
There is none this week, but there are four points preps left before the Sept. 5 running of the Kentucky Derby. The shortest-priced betting choices in Derby futures will be busy in them early next month. Santa Anita Derby winner Honor A. P. (5-1 Circa Sports, 5-1 William Hill Nevada) and allowance winner Cézanne (15-1, 22-1) have been targeted for the Aug. 1 Shared Belief at Del Mar. Belmont Stakes winner and futures favorite Tiz The Law (11-5, 11-5) is expected to be challenged by Los Alamitos Derby winner Uncle Chuck (8-1, 10-1) on Aug. 8 in the Grade 1 Travers at Saratoga. First in the Blue Grass, Art Collector (6-1, 8-1) is pointed to the Ellis Park Derby on Aug. 9. A minor prep, the Pegasus Stakes on Aug. 15 at Monmouth Park, will end the extended qualifying season that began last September.
I will not bet against Maximum Security on Saturday in the San Diego Handicap. But the early pace may set up for Combatant to come from behind and hit the board. If only there were more than just six horses. (Whenever I write about southern California racing, that is a sentence I really should program into F9 on my keyboard.)
Coming off a second-place finish three weeks ago in an Eclipse Stakes that was too short for her, 2018 European champion Enable (8-15) is the favorite to win for the third year in a row in the 1½-mile $507,262 Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. It is always good to see her racing. But there are only three other horses in Saturday’s 10:35 a.m. EDT race, they are all trained by Aidan O’Brien, and none is named Magical. (Remember that poke I took at southern California racing in the last paragraph? Never mind.)
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode Saratoga Special’s Tom Law previews the Vanderbilt Handicap, jockey Abel Cedillo talks about his ride on Maximum Security in the San Diego Handicap, and DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello forecasts some of the weekend’s top races. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.