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Strong Fields for Winter Championship Trials

Three champions set to compete for spots in the Grade 1 final.

January 27, 2012

AQHA Champions Jess You And I, Noconi and Little Bit Of Baja, a trio of venerable Grade 1 winners with a combined record of 36 wins from 88 starts and earnings of $3,934,414, will headline the trials to the Grade 1, Los Alamitos Winter Championship to be held on Sunday night. Ramon Sanchez has the pleasure of riding these three historic horses. First post time is 5 p.m.

Twenty-eight runners will compete in four trial divisions with the horses with the 10 fastest times advancing to the Winter Championship final on Sunday, February 19. The winner of the Grade 1 final will earn the first starting berth to the 2012 $750,000 Champion of Champions (G1).

Jess You And I needs no introduction to Quarter Horse racing fans. The now 8-year-old gelding is one of the great competitors in the history of this sport, having won the Champion of Champions, Robert L. Boniface Los Alamitos Invitational Championship, Golden State Million Futurity and several other major Grade 1 stakes races at Los Alamitos. The son of Feature Mr Jess has also competed in the Champion of Champions an impressive four times, including a win in the 2008 running and fourth-place finishes in each of the last two years. Jess You And I, who at over $1.8 million is one of the richest Quarter Horses ever, will be saddled by Paul Jones and ridden by Ramon Sanchez in the first of four trials.

Jones will also saddle the 7-year-old Noconi for R.D. Hubbard and John T.L. Jones in his comeback outing at Los Alamitos. The son of Mr Jess Perry was fifth to Jess You And I in the ’08 Champion of Champions, but he’s enjoyed numerous great victories in New Mexico over his career. A winner of the All American Gold Cup (G1) at Ruidoso Downs, Zia Park Championship (G1) and The Championship at Sunland Park (G1), Noconi’s lifetime earnings stand at $1,275,533 to make him one of the richest active sprinters in Quarter Horse racing. Sanchez jumps from one legend (Jess You And I) to another one in Noconi for the second trial.

Racing for Vessels Stallion Farm and Los Bustardos, the 8-year-old Little Bit Of Baja has three Champion of Champions appearances under his belt, including a pair of second-place finishes. After being the runner-up to world champion Blues Girl Too in 2007, he was second to Jess You And I in ’08. Little Bit Of Baja, who has made over $850,000, will be making his first start since December 2009. The winner of the 2007 Los Alamitos Super Derby (G1), Little Bit Of Baja had stem cell surgery, similar to the one that Be A Bono made famous in the mid-2000s. Sanchez will be in the irons aboard Little Bit Of Baja in the fourth and final trial.

Prior to that heat, the third trial will pit 2011 Champion of Champions runner-up Sparky E Boy, who just missed winning the 440-yard classic by a nose at 26-1 odds, plus Vessels Maturity (G1) and Go Man Go Handicap (G1) winner Snitcher. All eyes, however, will be on Brad Lohr and Daniel Reynoso’s Senor Toby, as the budding superstar will make his first start of the season after enjoying a remarkable and undefeated six-race campaign in 2011.

Other big names competing in the trials include 2012 Charger Bar Handicap (G2) winner Dash Back Perry and last year’s Southern California Derby (G1) winner El Aguila Real, El Primero Del Ano Derby (G2) winner PK Fire and PCQHRA Breeders’ Derby (G3) winner Onemoreglassofwine.

Even though there are plenty of big names like champions Jess You And I, Noconi, Little Bit Of Baja and major Grade 1 winners El Aguila Real and Snitcher in the trials, it is the lightly raced Senor Toby who is the most intriguing runner in Sunday’s qualifying races.

What makes him such an attraction in Sunday’s trials is his perfect six-for-six record in 2011, plus the fact that he dominated his last three races by winning by three-quarter lengths or more. Can the Jaime Gomez-trained runner take the next step up to stardom? How will he fare in open trials that feature champions and a slew of stakes winners? Can he keep up his winning streak and make it a heavenly seven?

Owned by Brad Lohr and Daniel Reynoso, Senor Toby will also enter the third trial to the February 19 Winter Championship dreaming of his first trip ever to a Grade 1 final. The gelded son of Mighty Invictus came narrowly close to achieving Grade 1 status last season when he barely missed qualifying to the Champion of Champions.

“Every race that he won last year was a mind-blowing experience for us,” said the 65-year-old Reynoso, who has raced at least one Quarter Horse at Los Alamitos each year since 1995. “We hope he keeps winning and we hope for more good things from him this season. If he continues his development, he should do just fine at this level. He likes running with pressure. He doesn’t shy away from a challenge. He likes to run against company. If a horse is right there running with him, he relishes the challenge. I think he’ll do just fine at this level.”

It’s hard to believe at one point right before he began his undefeated sophomore campaign, his connections considered retiring him from racing and turning him into a trail horse.

“He finished third in his first two starts and Brad was looking for a horse to ride,” Reynoso said. “Hopefully we kept him in training and gave him a chance to develop. We knew that he was born to run because I owned his half brother Fire Is On, who came close to making the 2010 Champion of Champions. Brad, Jaime and I stuck with the horse and we’re so glad that we did. Brad hasn’t owned too many racehorses so this has been a great thrill for him and his family. How many people get to enjoy this type of success in one of their first ventures into racing? I am so happy for Brad.”

Winning all six races in 2011 made Senior Toby the first Quarter Horse to go undefeated with that many victories during a single season at Los Alamitos since three-time distance champion Sign Of Lanty went seven-for-seven during 2000 campaign. Senor Toby is also the first Quarter Horse to go undefeated over the straightaway with six wins during a single season here since world champion Dashing Folly went a perfect eight-for-eight in 1996. The legendary champion Corona Chick is the only other horse with at least six wins to enjoy a perfect meet at Los Alamitos since 1991. Senor Toby also became only the 10th Quarter Horse over the past 21 years to complete an unblemished campaign with a minimum of four starts at Los Alamitos.

Among his six wins, Senor Toby won the A Ransom Handicap, a division to the Z. Wayne Griffin Directors Trial, the John Deere Stakes and Sgt Pepper Feature Handicap. He was named the Los Alamitos 3-year-old gelding of the year by the racing media and was honored as the meet’s most improved horse by the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Racing Association. Reynoso summed it all up with a couple of words.

“He was magnificent,” he said. “It was a great surprise. We love the horse so much. He is talented, but also very docile and well mannered. He is a very mature horse. He has a great mind and is very focused on his business. There’s no doubt that our goal this season is to get him into the Champion of Champions.”

Making that race has been Reynoso’s Holy Grail.

“Fire Is On gave me a lot of satisfaction and he barely missed making the Champion of Champions. He threw a horseshoe in the Z. Wayne and only missed qualifying by 2/100ths of a second, while Senor Toby missed it by 7/100ths. They were both the 11th horse in a race for 10. Making the Champion of Champions would be great after coming so close two years in a row.”

And what of Lohr’s need for a trail horse?

“We made a deal to keep Senor Toby running and I let him use one of my other horses for the trail,” Reynoso said. “We’re happy with how things have turned out.”