Last To Fire Wins Champion of Champions

Walk Thru Fire gelding makes his case for world champion honors.

December 15, 2013

Jesus Avila and Jesus Cuevas’ Last To Fire posted one of the most dominant performances in the 42-year history of the $750,000 Champion of Champions (G1), as he recorded a 1 ¼-length victory while covering the 440 yards in the event’s fourth-fastest clocking on Saturday at Los Alamitos.

Last To Fire’s decisive triumph in the sport’s most prestigious race combined with his big victories in the Grade 1 Vessels Maturity and Grade 1 Go Man Go Handicap makes the gelding by Walk Thru Fire a leading contender in the race for the title of American Quarter Horse racing’s world champion. Ridden by Eduardo Nicasio, the 24-year-old pilot who has won three of the last four Champion of Champions, Last To Fire covered the classic quarter-mile distance in :21.095 from post number one for trainer Jose De La Torre. Last To Fire’s winning time is the fastest in the Champion of Champions since Nicasio piloted Apollitical Jess to a track-record clocking of :20.93 also from along the rail in 2010.

Rylees Boy, the winner of the Champion of Champions last year, closed strongly from the outside post number 10 to finish in second-place. Matabari, last year’s Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity (G1) winner and this year’s Los Alamitos Super Derby (G1) winner, ran third. All American Derby (G1) winner Feature Hero finished fourth and was followed across the wire by Check N Fetch, Vodka With Ice, Ochoa, Priceless Feature, Hez Our Secret and Significant Heart. Ochoa was looking to become Quarter Horse racing’s first ever $3 million winner with a victory in the Champion of Champions. The Tres Seis gelding was off slow and never seriously contended on the way to finishing in seventh-place. He earned $18,750 for the effort to take his career earnings to $2,781,365. Ochoa remains Quarter Horse racing’s all-time leader in money earned.

Meanwhile, Last To Fire became the sport’s newest millionaire after his sensational effort earned him $375,000. Bred by the Estate of Spencer Childers, the brown gelding has now earned $1,087,545 while winning eight of 19 career starts. Sent off as the co-favorite at 9-5 odds, Last To Fire also tied five other horses for the fourth-largest margin of victory in the Champion of Champions. Only Dash For Cash and First Down Dash’s 1 ¾ length win margins in 1976 and ’87, respectively, and SLM Big Daddy’s 1 ½ length victory in 1998 were larger than Last To Fire’s wire to wire win.

“I was so nervous before the start, but we also felt very confident in the horse,” said co-owner Jesus Cuevas. “The horse gave us the confidence because of everything he has done this year. He was very professional in the paddock tonight. He looked very comfortable in the paddock. When he broke on top I felt like we had a great chance to win because of the potent way he has been running at the end of races. The race was his at 220 yards and I felt that there was no stopping him at that point. He had shown us at 400 yards what he could do, so running 440 yards felt like a comfortable distance for him and what he could do.”

It took Last To Fire 2 ½ seasons of racing to win his first Grade 1 stakes races. He won his elusive first Grade 1 race by a half-length in the 400-yard Vessels Maturity on July 7. He returned a little more than two months later with an emphatic 1 ¾-length win in the Grade 1 Go Man Go at 400 yards, an effort that made him one of the favorites to win this year’s Champion of Champions.

“I think he deserves to be named world champion after what he’s done this year,” Avila said. “He’s won three big races this year and especially the one he won tonight. It’s an amazing feeling. I’m still excited. He used to a nervous horse, but day by day he has become a more professional horse. He was just a pro tonight in the paddock.”

Avila and Cuevas are cousins that become partners in racehorse ownership in 2002.

“It was his idea,” said Cuevas referring to his cousin. “When I got started he already had some experience with the horses. This is a great moment for us. To win a race like the Champion of Champions and with a horse like Last To Fire, it just makes you feel complete as an owner. This is one of the best races that you can win.”

The field to the 2013 Champion of Champions was one of the strongest and richest ever. Going into the race, the lineup included the champion and mega rich superstar Ochoa, the millionaire and defending Champion of Champions winner in Rylees Boy, the millionaire and razor-sharp filly Matabari, the millionaire and winner of the sport’s richest race ever Feature Hero and three other horses with earnings of over $500,000. By the time it was all said and done, the field walked away from the Champion of Champions with $10,337,408 in combined lifetime earnings, or an average of over a $1 million per horse.

It could be that Last To Fire will rest until the trials to the Vessels Maturity on June 15.

“He’ll be a champion,” De La Torre said. “He’ll probably not run in the Los Alamitos Winter Championship and probably not until the Vessels Maturity (trials). After three grade ones, what more can you want from a horse? We’ll let him enjoy it and we’ll let him relax. You never know what will happen next year. This year, I think he deserves to be world champion.”

“We changed the bit on this horse and that’s one of the things that have worked out well,” said De La Torre about Last To Fire, who also uses a flipping halter while in the gate. “We also change his shoes a lot. He has two big quarter cracks right now on both feet. The left one is the worst one of the two. David Vargas does a great job shoeing this horse. (Last To Fire’s shoeing) is the hard work. It’s been a lot of teamwork involved. This horse is a great horse. Jesus Avila has brought some great horses to our barn. These owners also own Turbulent Times, who won the Golden State Million Futurity. Last To Fire, he does it all by himself. He has a lot of talent and has become the horse everyone thought that he would become.”

De La Torre trained and was part owner of last year’s World Champion One Dashing Eagle.

As for Nicasio, he also won the 2011 Champion of Champions with Good Reason SA and is now tied with jockey Ramon Sanchez with three Champion of Champions wins. Jerry Nicodemus and Bruce Pilkenton share the record of four Champion of Champions victories.

“I never expected (Last To Fire) to win the way he did tonight,” Nicasio said. “He’s a super horse. He went a little bit to the inside in the Go Man Go and he does like to go inside usually. We thought that breaking from post number one would fit his style the best. After he won the Go Man Go I thought that if he could break like that again that I could win the Champion of Champions. The way he ran tonight reminded me of my first Champion of Champions win with Apollitical Jess. Apollitical Jess broke fast too and this was a very similar race.”

Lorena Velazquez Rodriguez’s Rylees Boy became the oldest horse to win the Champion of Champions when he won last year’s running at the age of seven. Now eight, Rylees Boy did everything he could to break his own record, but the winner was just too tough according to trainer Paul Jones.

“Rylees Boy was coming strong at the end, but it was too big a lead,” Jones said. “Rylees Boy ran his race, but the winner was too tough. He couldn’t catch him. The old man ran big. He was flying. I thought he bumped with (Matabari) a little bit at the start of the race, but he coming on at the end.”

Saul Ramirez piloted the gelding by Heza Motor Scooter, who earned $120,000 in this race to take his career bankroll to $1,542,839. Balgo Racing Team and Marlyn Gonzalez’s Matabari ran a solid race from start to finish on the way finishing third. The homebred daughter of Mr Jess Perry earned $75,000 to increase her career earnings to $1,321,930. She was looking to become the first horse to win the Los Alamitos Two Million, Los Alamitos Super Derby and Champion of Champions. Guillermo Morales saddled Matabari, who was ridden by Ramon Sanchez. Reliance Ranches’ Feature Hero earned $52,500 to lift his bank account to $1,362,263. Eddie Willis saddled the Valiant Hero gelding, who was piloted by Jay Conklin.