Mettee kicks off new gig with stakes victory

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Rick Mettee is the first to admit he didn’t put the pieces together when he got what was to him an early-morning telephone call from Barry Irwin back in early April.

“I had actually just gotten word that I was going to get a call that somebody was looking for a private trainer back East,” Mettee said. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Who has that, a private trainer? That doesn’t ring a bell.’ Then when Barry called, since I had worked for him in the past, I thought it was about something different. I didn’t put two and two together.”

Mettee was kind enough to retell the story Monday afternoon. It’s now two days removed from the first time he told it to the Maryland Jockey Club’s Gabby Gaudet from the winner’s circle at Pimlico a few minutes after Cerro won the Canonero II Stakes.

Mettee went on to say that he nearly dropped the phone when Irwin, the head of Team Valor International, offered him the job as the syndicate’s private trainer. He took the job and now has 27 horses under his care and housed in Team Valor’s private barn at Fair Hill.

Training at Fair Hill is a bit of a homecoming for Mettee, who was in California at the time of Irwin’s call.

It’s allowed him to return to Maryland, where he got his first exposure to racing by riding the bus on Saturdays with his grandmother to go to the races at either Pimlico or Timonium. She lived in a row house in Hampden and he’d spend time pouring over the charts back when the Baltimore newspapers paid attention to racing the other 51 weeks of the year the Preakness wasn’t in town and gave it the space.

Maryland is also where Mettee got his first hands on experience, first as a hotwalker fresh out of high school working for Bernie Klein and later rubbing horses for Bill Wolfendale and Dickie Dutrow Sr.

It’s also allowed him to reunite with Irwin, whom he worked for and was successful for in the early 1990s. He saddled Kanatiyer to a victory in the 1991 Jaipur Stakes when Irwin’s partnerships raced in the name Team Clover Stable.

And it’s also allowed him to be back with high-caliber horses and a high-caliber staff-whether it’s the people taking care of the horses or taking care of the business. He knows that situation well, principally from working first for John Gosden in California and later as Saeed bin Suroor’s main assistant to handle the American-based runners owned by the Maktoum family’s Godolphin Racing operation.

“It’s very similar in that you’re working with a good staff of people,” Mettee said. “When I was with Godolphin we had pretty much carte blanche to hire the staff we needed. Barry and Brad [Weisbord] here at Team Valor have enabled me to hire top staff. That’s the similar part of it.

“The private thing at Fair Hill a bit different, although training off the track is what we did when we had the horses in Dubai. But when we were in the United States we were always at Belmont Park. That’s what drew me to this job. Being out of Fair Hill most of the year and Palm Meadows in the winter. The best of both of both worlds.”

The Canonero II was Mettee’s first win in his own name since 2001, but was the 94th of his career.

For Cerro it was his second win of the season, and third overall. The only other was a maiden at Milan racecourse in Italy that prompted Irwin to purchase the Mr. Greeley colt privately. He’s always run credibly, even in defeat, and was fourth in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and sixth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream earlier this season. Cerro and runner-up Dynamic Strike hooked up entering the far turn and were lapped onto one another the length of the stretch. Cerro edged clear just before the wire, winning by a short head.

“They’re both pretty nice horses,” Mettee said. “Cerro is proving he probably needs at least nine furlongs for his best. He can run on several different surfaces and we haven’t given up the idea of trying the turf or synthetic again with him. He’s a big galloping horse, the kind that can throw those 12-second splits at you. It’s more distance than the surface. I’d say getting races at a distance is going to prove how much he can improve for us.”