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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 29, 2022 – I first became aware of a teachable expression while watching America’s Day at the Races. Analyst and former jockey Richard Migliore, commenting on an older horse whose best days apparently were behind him, reminded the audience that “Father Time Is Undefeated.”

There’s another expression I’m hearing a lot more lately, after I recently mentioned to several friends that I think I’m getting too practiced in the art of writing obits. “We’re of that age..” they all would say. #Fact

On the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, I was going through my morning routine, reading online racing sources, wondering what was making news and what developments could possibly become fodder for future commentary.

But a story in Thoroughbred Daily News stopped me cold. TDN correspondent Bill Finley reported that trainer Angel Penna Jr. died in his sleep at the age of 74. I was stunned.  

My stomach ached, and still does as I clack the keyboard, the normal  reaction we all have when we lose someone we love. One by one, many I have loved in Thoroughbred racing, lifelong friendships shared as racetrackers strive for personal growth in the midst of making a living.

Wikipedia will tell you that Bocha, a nickname he’s had since childhood, developed Eclipse champions Christmas Past and Laugh and Be Merry,  and that he was the son of Hall of the Famer, Angel Penna, Sr., the internationally successful trainer for the Phipps family in America.

At the end, Penna was battling dementia, a disease that still confounds doctors and for which there is no cure. The only saving grace is that he died peacefully, a state which not only was just but deserving. I’m sure he has, but I never heard him raise his voice in anger.

I first met the Buenos Aires native in South Florida, introducing myself to him in the paddock of the old Gulfstream Park in the early 80s. I asked if I could stop by the barn one morning. As was his way, he could not have been more gracious.

A professional relationship grew into friendship and we shared many dinner tables. A foodie long before the term was commonplace, he introduced me to Pinot Grigio–“only Santa Margherita”–a time when that brand was more reasonably priced.

He also took me to his favorite haunt in the Little Havana section of Miami, a.k.a. Calle Ocho. The following year he insisted I stay at his Miami Lakes condo, which I did. We talked horses, sports, politics—we disagreed, never disagreeably–but mostly we talked horses.

The most memorable meal we shared, however, was in a condo dining room–not Bocha’s, but that of his legendary Hall of Fame father. And it wasn’t the food that was so memorable, it was the extraordinary company.

Sitting immediately to Mr Penna’s left was a seventh diner, a four-legged one, Senor Penna’s bulldog. The dog sat more patiently than most children his age, quietly eating from a plate. He never dropped a morsel or uttered a sound, his chomping notwithstanding. Damndest dinner thing ever.

However, I must say that my professional memory of Angel Penna Jr.’s talent as a horseman frustrates me. His talent was taken for granted. There was no daily television to beat the drum back in the day so, consequently, his accomplishments never were fully appreciated.

Angel Penna Jr., the horseman, was vastly underrated.

Bocha won a high percentage of his starts, not at today’s absurdly eye-raising strike rates. He won a good percentage of his starts because he raced his horses more sparingly, placing them strategically at the highest levels only when it made sense to do so.

Penna Jr. allowed time for recovery before The Sheets ruled the training landscape, a regimen of incremental development that, too, was a tad ahead of its time. The surmise is that the approach was a nod to his international background. Whatever it was, it worked. Big time.

Penna understood and dealt well with pressure, training for the likes of Wheatley Stable, Pin Oak Farm, and Martha F. Gerry’s Lazy F Ranch. His champions are the most celebrated, but there also was the gifted turf runner Perfect Arc, and the sprint sensation A Phenomenon.

In addition came Auntie Mame and Diamondrella and Silver Voice and Via Borghese. Among other stakes victories were Grade 1 wins in the Coaching Club American Oaks, Flower Bowl, Gulfstream Park Handicap, and Ruffian Stakes.

Despite winning with colts, fillies, routers and sprinters on dirt or grass at the highest levels, his laid-back style and soft-spoken demeanor, more high quality stock was never forthcoming. He lacked something that is so prevalent today; a penchant for self-promotion.

Commiserating his loss with my oldest friend from St. John’s University, retired horseman John Parisella, he shared that Penna once gifted him a $100 bottle of after-shave lotion. “Was it your birthday, or something?”

“No,’ Parisella said. “We just liked each other. He was a good guy who just wanted to do something nice.”

A celebration of his life is planned for some time this winter in South Florida during the championship meet when most of the friends he made in New York would be in town. Nothing could be more appropriate for a man who touched so many hearts, especially mine.

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7 Responses

  1. Penna`s horses ,unless my memory is betraying me, were horses that were usually doing well in routes,both on grass or dirt. Was it Penna Senior who had an ability to get them ready for going long ? A good era for horse racing, those 70’s.80’s…

    1. Yes,, JG, it was Penna the Elder who had the “marathon” reputation. But Bocha won with every manner of horse. I get angry with the way the 1% types virtually abandoned him.

      Actually, some of his stock was lost when a former employee hijacked one of his more prominent owners. That’s a longer story but one I’d rather not share…sorry about that

  2. John,
    An informative description of a trainer whose name appeared on just about every racing program I read “back in the day”. I enjoy the insider’s stories of the people I only knew as an outsider.

  3. A very nice remembrance, John. Thank you.

    I first met Angel around the same time as you, and can echo your sentiments. One detail that I will add, only because it was such a colorful part of his personality, is that he was quite superstitious. A number of years ago I was at his barn at Palm Meadows, and we hopped into his golf cart to ride to the clocker’s stand. As we set off, he seemed to take an odd route, and I asked him why. His response was (I’m paraphrasing): there’s a black cat that often intersects that [more direct] route!

    As you suggest, Angel was an underrated trainer, an interesting, likable man, and will be missed by many.

    1. Great post, you’re right and made me think of the superstition I know about. Would have garlic woven into a huge horseshoe wreath that he hung over the stall of the ,”big horse,” whoever that was at the time. Keep the evil spirits away–I’ve got to find out if that practice came from Senor Penna first. Thanks for jogging the memory Tink!

  4. RIP Angel Penna Jr.

    I find it pretty distasteful to this day that self promotion takes such a prominent seat in front of quality of work in most professions. You should not have to ‘put on a performance’ for prospective clients like you are on a job interview every single day; it has to be pretty unhealthy, and it is not good for a person’s psyche. Give me quiet dignity and good quality over that nonsense every time.

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