Montoya, Unrivaled get big chance

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Marya Montoya calls herself a hands-on trainer, and means it. After claiming a horse at Keeneland last October, she spent four hours with him at the barn waiting on a van. She exercises horses herself. She stuffs hay nets. She hotwalks, grooms and rolls bandages.

And she skips post-position draws for Grade 1 races. Or she does now, anyway.

Montoya, whose first name is pronounced like a certain pop star whose last name is Carey, will saddle Unrivaled in Saturday’s Blue Grass at Keeneland, in hopes of earning a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Tuesday morning, she was taking care of her horse at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland.

“They called from Keeneland and asked me if I was going to the draw,” Montoya said. “I want to make sure he gets on the van and everything is OK. There really isn’t much I can do at the draw to help.”

There’s apparently plenty she can do to help Unrivaled, the horse she claimed at Keeneland and now trains for Team Valor International. He’ll be her first Grade 1 starter, a little more than five months since entering her barn.

The son of Super Saver lost his first three starts for breeder WinStar Farm and trainer Kellyn Gorder, the last for a $30,000 tag. Montoya, whose Parx Racing-based barn typically includes about 20 runners, frequently shops for potential claims and picked Unrivaled because of his pedigree and potential.

“At a little bit more of an exclusive meet you can get some horses people are dropping in before they go south or whatever,” she said. “We had two horses picked out in the race and went with the better-bred horse. I’d like to say we knew he was the standout and the one we wanted, but we took a shot. He’s a nice, good looking horse.”

Of course, Unrivaled dwelt at the start of the 1 1/16-mile race and spotted the field at least 10 lengths before rallying late and finishing second by a nose. Montoya had some buyer’s remorse, and a long evening in the rain at Keeneland to think about it. She went back to Parx and tried to reboot the bay colt. After some anxious moments and various experiments with equipment and approaches, he got re-approved at the gate.

“He was first-time blinkers (the day of the claim) and maybe something happened, I don’t know,” said Montoya. “We had to go back to square one. It was a little scary for a while. We felt like we might have a horse that wasn’t going to be worth anything. I don’t think he was bad, he was just scared.”

Unrivaled returned to the races at Parx Dec. 9. In a four-horse race on a sloppy track, he broke fine but was no match for easy winner Cat Fiftyfive while second going 7 furlongs. Two days before Christmas, Unrivaled stretched to a mile and delivered plenty of holiday cheer for Montoya and Waldorf Racing Stable – winning by 15 lengths. News of the romp found its way to Team Valor, eventually.

“I have a guy that’s like a consultant that scouts for me and this horse did not catch my attention and didn’t catch his right off the bat either,” said Team Valor’s Barry Irwin. “It’s not a time when anybody’s paying attention, especially at Parx. He saw (the maiden win), sent me the video and we couldn’t believe it.”

In the meantime, Montoya was impressed enough to consider stakes starts and rented stalls at Fair Hill to help make winter training a reality rather than a question mark.

“Right after he broke his maiden we were looking to hit a small stakes at Laurel and then try to hit the Withers (at Aqueduct in February),” Montoya said. “The weather was turning bad up there and I kept having to tell my owners ‘We didn’t train today . . . we didn’t train today . . . we didn’t train today.’ “

With a Tapeta track and proximity to the region’s tracks, Fair Hill was the logical choice. Montoya didn’t miss many days – except those where icy horse paths proved impassable.

Though Waldorf and Montoya weren’t looking to sell, potential buyers kept asking and Team Valor completed the deal in early March. Montoya wanted to make the Private Terms at Laurel, but the race was moved back a week because of the weather and she opted for an allowance race at Parx March 15.

Unrivaled charged from way back early to win by a geared-down 5 lengths. The replay is like a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. You want to watch it again.

He breaks well from the rail, then finds a nice spot, then drops way back. He’s off the screen for most of the backside, and appears as a whisker just before the quarter pole. Right about then, announcer Keith Jones barks “Here comes Unrivaled, finally getting it in gear.” He moves to fourth, goes three wide off the turn, leans in against a rival, perhaps catching a whip in the ear in the process, switches to his right lead and zeroes in on the two horses in front of him. With lots of right rein from Frankie Pennington, Unrivaled tries to lean in again, straightens out and wins going away with the jockey standing up in the final four strides.

Live, the race wasn’t so much fun. Montoya watched on the infield big screen and kept looking for her horse.

“I started walking down the stretch like ‘Where is he?’ ” she said. “Then I’m thinking he’s not firing, but even in the morning when you gallop him when he turns for home and switches leads and accelerates every time.”

Montoya credited some of the stretch meanderings to a broken tooth discovered after the race and expects new jockey Robby Albarado to have better steering Saturday.

Unrivaled worked 5 furlongs on the dirt at Fair Hill March 26 and had a strong gallop Monday. He walked – well, tried to trot – the shedrow Tuesday morning and was scheduled for a van ride to Keeneland.

Team Valor left Unrivaled with Montoya, because of the horse’s quirks and her attention to detail.

“He does some weird stuff, and she and her husband have figured out to get the horse from A to Z,” Irwin said. “I don’t want to mess with it. I want to jump on the bandwagon, not reinvent the wheel.”

The daughter of longtime Mid-Atlantic trainer Dennis “Goose” Heimer, Montoya was a 6-year-old hotwalker, a 10-year-old groom and a teenage exercise rider. Her father, who won 1,246 races and is in the Parx Hall of Fame, died of a heart attack in 1989. Montoya was 15.

“I always knew it was something I wanted to do,” she said of training. “He gave me one of the best horses in the barn because he knew I would ice it. Super Delight, a nice stake horse back in the day.”

Montoya lost both her parents as a teenager, lived with her stepmother through high school and then dove into racing. Now 40, Montoya worked in Maryland for trainer John Salzman, took two $1,000 yearlings she now refers to as “guinea pigs” to Florida and gradually built a stable. She had her first runner in 1996, and won 17 races last year to fuel a career high of $768,419 in purse earnings. Her husband, Ross, works on the gate crew at Parx, gets on Unrivaled for jogging sessions and is along for the ride.

“Everybody has to start somewhere and you’re only as good as the horses you get to train,” she said. “I’m thrilled to have this opportunity.”

NOTES: The Blue Grass post position was Tuesday and eight 3-year-olds entered. From the rail out, the Blue Grass field: Ocho Ocho Ocho, Gorgeous Bird, Pepper Roani, Unrivaled, Carpe Diem (co-owned and -bred by WinStar), Frammento, Classy Class and Danzig Moon. … Montoya makes her Keeneland and Grade 1 debut in the race. …  Her first stakes win came in last year’s Banjo PIcker Sprint at Parx with Rustler Hustler. … She won last year’s Temperence Hill Stakes at Belmont Park with Ever Rider.