To many, the seemingly meteoric rise of English-bred Gitano Hernando over the last year has been simply amazing. But not so for Team Valor International president Barry Irwin, who bought the colt after he broke his maiden with intentions of racing him on the world’s biggest stage.

With a victory in the 2009 Goodwood Stakes (gr. I) already in the books, Gitano Hernando now has a legitimate chance to win the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) March 27 at Meydan Racecourse. Irwin may be the only person who is not surprised.

“I really liked the way he broke his maiden,” recalled Irwin, who watched Gitano Hernando win on the Wolverhampton Polytrack in November, 2008 in his third start. “He really looked good and reached out very well on the synthetic track. He covered a lot of ground with his stride.
“I actually owned his fourth dam, Hanina. His sire, Hernando, usually produces plodders and long distance horses. I was already thinking Belmont (Stakes, gr. I) with him.”

Seeing his tremendous potential, Irwin bought Gitano Hernando privately from his breeders, Newsells Park Stud, who was in the process of selling off many of its horses due to the ailing health of owner Klaus Jacobs. It was not an easy deal to strike.

“Mr. Jacobs’ widow did not want to sell him at first, so I called her stepson, Andreas, who I’ve done business with for before, and asked him to help,” Irwin said. “I started out offering what I thought was a reasonable figure, but wound up paying a premium.”

The hefty price tag would soon pay off for Irwin, who kept the colt in training in England with Marco Botti, an up-and-coming trainer based at Newmarket. Gitano Hernando would win a handicap in March, 2009 at Doncaster, then missed by a head in the May 8 Addleshaw Goddard Dee Stakes at Chester. Unfortunately, Gitano Hernando would not make the Belmont after a health setback, but in September he came back to break the 1 1/16-mile Wolverhampton track record in a minor stakes.

That race prompted Irwin to send the budding 3-year-old star to Santa Anita for the Oct. 10 Goodwood. Sent off at 18-1 under Kieran Fallon, Gitano Hernando scored by a neck over Colonel John in a stellar field that also included Richard’s Kid, Mine That Bird, Chocolate Candy, Tres Borrachos, and others.

“He beat a very good field, but that race knocked him for a loop,” said Irwin, who decided to pass on the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) the following month. “He really laid his body down and needed more time. He’s a late-developing horse. At that point, we decided to shoot for the World Cup.”

Given more than four months off, Gitano Hernando returned as a 4-year-old Feb. 27 in the Betdaq The Betting Exchange Winter Derby Trial Stakes at Lingfield Park. The 1 1/4-mile World Cup prep went perfectly, as the chestnut colt romped to victory by 4 1/2 lengths under Fallon. He narrowly missed the track record despite not being 100% geared up for the race.

Now a perfect 4-for-4 over synthetic tracks and rapidly improving, Gitano Hernando should be primed for a big run in the World Cup, which is run over Meydan’s Tapeta surface. Currently the third or fourth choice amongst British bookmakers, Gitano Hernando, who is also owned in part by Gary Barber, will face a star-studded field that will include Gio Ponti, Vision d’Etat, and Twice Over.
Irwin is no stranger to the World Cup, having won the $2 million Dubai Duty Free (UAE-I) with champion Ipi Tombe in 2003. However, this will be his first horse in the main event.

“He looks like a live horse,” said Irwin, who said a group of about 20 Team Valor partners and their wives will make the trip to Dubai. “Luckily for us Sheikh Mohammed decided to put in Tapeta surface at his new racetrack at a time when we have a horse who loves synthetics.
“He’s the only horse I’ve ever had that has improved every race. He’s improved at such a rapid pace; he went from a 104 to a 120 on Timeform in a heartbeat. We’re excited.”
Irwin said Gitano Hernando could be pointed toward races in Japan and Hong Kong later this year, and a run on the turf in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs is also an option.