This East Bay teenager is headed to Churchill Downs seeking a victory

[READ FEATURE IN THE MERCURY NEWS]

John Del Secco squeezed his brown cowboy boot firmly onto the gas pedal.

The 18-year-old’s Ford F150 — silver and black, the color scheme of his favorite football team — bolted out of Danville’s sleepy suburbs and made a hard turn westward onto Highway 24.

It was 4:15 a.m. on a Saturday, and Del Secco’s mind was already spinning. His horses awaited his care. They required new grain, water, medication; bandages needed changing, legs needed rub-downs, stalls needed mucking.

Then he let his thoughts slip further down the road, to the raucous culmination of so many mornings like this one.

“I’m a small-town boy going to the big city, I guess,” Del Secco said.

He was not referring to Oakland.

On Tuesday, Del Secco flew to Louisville, Kentucky — the biggest city in the world of horse racing — to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup. Over 100,000 spectators are expected to pour into Churchill Downs, where thoroughbred racing’s royalty will battle for supremacy in a two-day event trailing only the Kentucky Derby in prestige.

Del Secco, a senior at De La Salle, is the racing manager of King of Speed, a Los Angeles-based thoroughbred coming off back-to-back stakes victories in California this fall. King of Speed will go off at 8-1 in Friday’s Juvenile Turf race, tied for the fourth best odds in the 14-horse event that will begin at 2:22 p.m. PST. One-million dollars in prize money will be at stake, including $600,000 for the winner.

No pressure for the young kid playing the old man’s game.

“I think the race is going to shape up for us, and I think we’ll give it a run for the money,” said Del Secco, who will observe the race from the stands. “I’m never going to doubt myself afterwards. Whatever happens happens.”

On many counts, Del Secco is your typical ranch hand. His boots feed into a worn pair of blue rider jeans, and his calloused hands reveal dried blood on the edges of his fingernails. He wakes up at 3:45 a.m. everyday over the summer — and on weekends during the school year — to make the 45-minute drive to Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, where he helps care for a handful of horses, including two owned by him and his father, David. He feels at home striding through the barns on the backside of the racetrack, and his favorite music comes from Florida George Line and Carrie Underwood.

From the waist up, though, Del Secco is your typical high school kid: a clean-shaven face with no lines of age, a mop of thick black hair, a De La Salle cross-country team pullover with the Spartan logo.

Del Secco does not descend from a long line of horse handlers, a rarity in an ancient sport kept alive by inheritance. Sure, his dad took him to some races at Alameda County Fairgrounds when he was a kid, but the family didn’t own any horses.

That changed quickly. Del Secco approached Terry Eidson, his Religious Studies teacher, after class one day during freshman year. Del Secco knew Eidson’s family was steeped in horse racing, so they bantered about the Kentucky Derby. Then he told Eidson he wanted to be a trainer.

“My whole career no one’s ever said anything like that,” Eidson said, “so I was like, ‘Really?’”

Eidson introduced Del Secco to longtime trainer Steve Sherman, the son of Art Sherman, who trained Triple Crown contender California Chrome. Sherman then referred Del Secco to Jeff Bonde, a fixture in California racing for over four decades.

Being under the minimum age of 16, Del Secco had to get a special exemption from horse racing stewards to work as a full-time groom over the summer. He took 4:30 a.m. Ubers to the barn everyday before he started driving his pickup truck.

Ever since that fateful talk with Eidson a few years ago, John and David Del Secco have gone all in on the pony game. David’s construction company, Del Secco DCS, Inc., currently owns 16 horses based in various locations. Six of them dwell at the famed Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles, where Bonde plies his trade.

John Del Secco gets Bonde on the phone everyday to discuss his horses. John makes most of the racing decisions; Bonde trains the horses; David signs the checks.

Since he began training racehorses in 1974, Bonde says he has never encountered someone so young take on so much responsibility around the track.

“He puts in the time. He’s learning the trade,” said Bonde, who currently trains 35 horses total. “In today’s world you don’t see that much anymore.”

Schoolwork, horse maintenance and distance running don’t leave Del Secco with much time to chill with friends, but they all respect the hustle.

“I can’t imagine him doing anything else with his time honestly,” said Caitlin Lightle, a senior at neighboring Carondelet High in Concord. “He’s one of the most ambitious and driven people I know.”

Del Secco hopes to earn business and equine degrees from the University of Kentucky, and he is also considering Texas Christian University. He wants to devote his life to raising horses — buy a ranch to begin breeding and training his own thoroughbreds, maybe win a Triple Crown or two.

Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey piloting King of Speed during his recent wins, was initially taken aback when Bonde matter-of-factly introduced the racing manager 37 years Stevens’ junior. But it didn’t take long for Stevens to appreciate Del Secco’s mature approach.

“He’s got a great aura about him, a very positive aura,” Stevens said. “I’ve won some of my biggest races for some people that aren’t real fun to be around. Winning for him, it lights up my day. It makes it extra special.”

For now all Del Secco can think about is Friday’s race and the rippling chestnut whom he describes as “a big, dumb teenager” too hardheaded to fear anything.

King of Speed showcased his bold streak and closing speed at the Zuma Beach Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 8, when he roared past favored Much Better, the colt owned by defending Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, to claim first place by 1¼ lengths.

Del Secco said Baffert later offered to buy King of Speed, but Del Secco’s team declined. The swaggering newcomer won’t fear the legendary trainer the second time around either, when Much Better will start at the No. 3 post at 10-1 odds.

“It’s just another horse and just another guy training a horse,” said Del Secco, whose colt will start from the No. 11 gate. “Everyone’s the same to me.”

Should King of Speed triumph on Friday, Del Secco will likely stay in Kentucky for at least another day so that he can attend the champions dinner on Saturday. There will be sultans from Dubai and owners with advice, not to mention the ever-coveted breeding rights offers that can net tens of millions of dollars.

But if he doesn’t win, Del Secco will turn his attention westward again. His cross-country team’s East Bay Athletic League Championship races begin at 2:30 on Saturday.

Fortunately, he can sleep in. His flight doesn’t take off until 6 a.m.

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