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First Stakes Win Latest Step for Young Trainer Jesse Cruz
Milestone Victory Comes with Why Not Tonight at Laurel Park
BALTIMORE – Even as a West Virginia native that has traveled across the country for racing and currently splits his seasons between Florida winters and New Jersey summers, trainer Jesus ‘Jesse’ Cruz couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to win his first stakes race than in Maryland.
Wasabi Ventures Stable’s Why Not Tonight made that dream a reality June 19 when the 4-year-old mare – four starts after being claimed for $16,000 – outran two-time turf sprint stakes winner Can the Queen over 1 1/16 miles to capture the $75,000 All Brandy for Maryland-bred/sired fillies and mares 3 and up at Laurel Park.
Maryland is where the 28-year-old Cruz launched his career, winning with his first starter April 2, 2017 at Laurel. Maryland’s Best, a 3-year-old gelding out of the University of Maryland’s breeding program, won by 1 ¼ lengths that day and went unclaimed for a $16,000 tag.
The All Brandy was the first win in Maryland for Cruz since Feb. 23, 2020, which came before he began what has been a successful run with TK Kuegler and his wife, Michele, of Wasabi. Since the racing partnership began in 2017, Wasabi has expanded to include a broodmare operation based at St. Omer’s Farm in Forest Hill, Md.
“It was a great win for all parties – me, Wasabi, the horse. It was really good,” Cruz said. “It was kind of the right way. The way TK and I started was with a [$16,000] claimer. We claimed our first horse together for [$16,000] and that’s kind of what we’ve built our stable on is claiming horses at that level a little bit in Maryland.
“When we left, and every time we went back there, Maryland had kind of haunted us a little bit. We just never had good luck,” he added, noting Why Not Tonight’s troubled fourth in a May 12 allowance at historic Pimlico Race Course. “It was very appropriate to win our first stake with a Maryland-bred, at Laurel, with a horse that we had claimed for [$16,000]. It was just everything that we had built our stable around, really.”
Cruz is overseeing a stable of 17 horses, 15 of them owned by Wasabi. Cruz credits Kuegler, a venture capitalist and native of Essex, Md., with keeping his dream of training horses alive.
In 2018, his first full season as a trainer, Cruz and a new client went to Delaware Park for its summer meet. The stable grew from four or five horses to more than 20, with modest success, but Cruz was let go when the meet ended and left with two horses owned by Wasabi.
“We got rolling a little bit, nothing crazy, but it looked like I was building some steam up,” Cruz said. “After Delaware they moved on to another trainer. They wanted to make a move, and that’s horse racing.”
Cruz reached out to Kuegler, uncertain of his future.
“I called him and explained what happened. I was going to tell him, ‘Look, I can help you find a trainer for these two horses, because I kind of need to get a job.’ At that point I really thought my career had failed, honestly,” Cruz said. “He kind of laughed on the phone and said, ‘OK. Let’s get these two horses to Oaklawn. I’m going to come out there and we’ll sit down and we’ll figure out this stuff financially and we’ll figure out how to rebuild this stable.’
“They believed in me when no one else did, and without him I wouldn’t be here. I went to Oaklawn with those two horses and we just gradually built the stable back up,” he added. “It takes a lot for someone to believe in a young kid, because at the time I was only 24 years old. I had had success, but nothing spectacular. To believe in me and basically invest thousands of dollars into me, as well, with horses and stuff like that, he kind of pushed his chips onto the table with me. It takes a special person to do that.”
Humble and hard-working, Cruz learned his lessons from his mother, Daisy Tobin, who spent nearly three decades working as a groom and assistant for legendary Charles Town trainer James Casey before retiring in 2016. She still helps around the barn of her husband, trainer Lewis Craig Jr., Cruz’s stepfather. Tobin raised Cruz and his older sister, Elizabeth, as a single mother.
“My mom told me very early on, horses can only give you what you put into them and that’s every day waking up, taking care of them and doing all the right things. That was the work ethic that she just put into me and my sister very early in our lives,” Cruz said. “With my career, everything that I do I dedicate to her. My mom is one of the best horsemen in the world and nobody knows her name, because she had to sacrifice her dreams so my sister and I could have ours.”
By 16, Cruz was galloping at Charles Town for his parents and Casey. Among their best horses were Russell Road, who Casey trained to 31 wins, 22 in stakes, and more than $2 million in purse earnings from 2008-16; and Help a Brother, bred, owned and trained by Craig that won 15 of 49 starts from 2012-19.
“I kind of fell in love with the game at Charles Town being around Help a Brother and Russell Road and horses like that,” Cruz said. “But then Bristol kind of showed me the bigger picture like getting to Saratoga and winning graded-stakes.”
‘Bristol’ is Dance to Bristol, the outstanding female sprinter that won 10 of 20 starts and more than $980,000 from 2011-13. Among her victories were the Ballerina (G1) and Honorable Miss (G2) at Saratoga, the Bed o’Roses (G3) at Belmont Park and Skipat on the eve of the 138th Preakness Stakes (G1) in 2013, and the 2012 Marshua at Laurel Park. Trained by Ollie Figgins III, she ran sixth in her career finale, the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) at Santa Anita.
“Ollie was a major mentor for me. He was like a second father kind of thing. I went everywhere with Ollie,” Cruz said. “Eventually when Ollie brought his string of horses to Bowie with Dance to Bristol, I moved to Bowie with him. I galloped her all over the country. I had never flown on a plane until I went to California with her. I had never been to New York until I went there with her.”
Cruz had been away from home once before, pre-Bristol, when he spent the winter following his high school graduation living and galloping as a freelancer at Gulfstream Park, primarily for trainer Cam Gambolati, who won the 1985 Kentucky Derby (G1) with eventual 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year Spend a Buck.
“I knew this is what I wanted to do, and a lot of my friends were going away to college and stuff like that. This was kind of like my going away to college. It let me get out of Charles Town for a little bit and gallop horses,” Cruz said. “Ollie and my parents were all OK with it. They kind of wanted me to get out of Charles Town, too. Then I came home because Ollie was getting stalls in Maryland and moving there, so I came back to be his assistant in Maryland.”
Cruz spent two galloping at Saratoga for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and trainers Mike Maker and Joe Sharp before getting his training career under way. When Why Not Tonight won the All Brandy, it was the result of years of dedication and persistence.
“It was special in a lot of ways,” Cruz said. “TK was away in London. He and his wife went to a day at Royal Ascot and then they were kind of on vacation over there. He was watching the race. Walking to the winner’s circle, I sent him a text that just said, ‘Finally.’ I felt like we’ve kind of been growing to this point and it was something I’ve obviously dreamed about my entire life. But, to just get to this point and get to that next level was a very big [step] for us.”
Cruz hopes to return to Maryland with Magical Mousse, a 3-year-old Great Notion colt bred by Wasabi and Greenspring Mares and owned by Wasabi, Rocky Top Stables and Vandelay Stables. A maiden winner at Delaware Park last fall, he was fourth in a pair of open stakes at Tampa Bay Downs over the winner but has gone unraced since the Jan. 15 Pasco.
“He’s a Maryland-bred,” Cruz said. “He had a little bit of a setback but everything seems to be in order now, so that’s a horse that we’re really excited to try to get to Maryland at some point this summer or fall.”