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HORSE RACING

Ron Ellis takes hands-on approach to training

The trainer's stable includes Rail Trip, the winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup who will be racing in Sunday's Grade I, $1-million Pacific Classic at 11/4 miles at Del Mar.

September 06, 2009|Eric Sondheimer

Ron Ellis was a high school football player growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s when he discovered a passion for horse racing.

At 15, a friend's father took him to Santa Anita, showed him how to read the Daily Racing Form, and Ellis was hooked. The next year, he worked on weekends for trainer Larry Sterling and spent the whole summer at Del Mar.

By the time he graduated from Monroe High in 1977, he persuaded his parents to let him take a year off from attending college to focus on horse racing. He never made it to college because the barn became his classroom. "They were the most beautiful horses," he said.

He trained his first stakes winner at 20, and through the years, he has gained a reputation for being a patient, precise, hands-on trainer who puts his horses first. At 49, Ellis might have the best horse ever in his barn, the lightly raced 4-year-old gelding Rail Trip, winner of the Hollywood Gold Cup.

And Rail Trip is one of the leading contenders in today's Grade I, $1-million Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles at Del Mar. "He's been training really well," Ellis said.

There was initial concern about Rail Trip adjusting to Del Mar's Polytrack synthetic surface.

"The track at Del Mar is so much different than Hollywood Park," Ellis said. "All of his works, he's gotten better and better. It's a little more of a testing surface for a speed horse, and he showed me at Hollywood Park a mile and a quarter is better for him than a mile."

Today is the 35th day of racing for the 37-day Del Mar meeting, and what a day it could be. Besides Rail Trip taking on East Coast invader Einstein, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, and 2008 Santa Anita Derby winner Colonel John, the 11-race card will also include the Grade I $300,000 Pat O'Brien Handicap at seven furlongs and the Grade II $350,000 Del Mar Derby at 1 1/8 miles on the turf.

Rail Trip, a son of Jump Start, has the opportunity to thrust himself into contention as one of the top handicap horses if he turns in a productive performance going against the toughest field he has faced. He has won six of his eight races and will have regular jockey Jose Valdivia Jr. aboard.

"I think he is a big-time horse," said owner Samantha Siegel of the Jay Em Ess Stable. "It's a chance for more people to learn what we know. He's really getting better. You can watch him train in the morning and see how happy he is."

Ellis has been adamant about not rushing Rail Trip, who didn't make his first start until Nov. 7 last year because of surgery to remove a bone chip when he was a 2-year-old.

Ellis thinks young horses are similar to Little League players and compares an 11-year-old pitcher who's not supposed to be throwing curveballs to a young horse asked to do too much. "I let the horse tell me if they're mature enough to run," he said.

Rail Trip showed early promise but also was rambunctious. It was Siegel who recommended Rail Trip be gelded because he was wasting energy, and she has no regrets even though he's putting together a record that could have made him a valuable stallion.

"I thought if he had any chance to relax, the cutting would really help him, and it has," she said.

Siegel has used Ellis as one of her trainers for more than 20 years. She calls him a perfectionist.

"The first thing I like is that he does a good job and cares about his horses, sometimes annoyingly so," she said.

Ellis limits his stable of horses to no more than 40 because he wants to give them individual attention. He has gained attention recently because his 18-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, has been dating 19-year-old jockey Joe Talamo.

"I'm not known as Ron Ellis, the trainer," he said. "I'm known as Joe Talamo's girlfriend's dad."

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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Big day at Del Mar

FIRST POST: 1 P.M.

* Grade I $1-million Pacific Classic. 1 1/4 miles.

* Grade I $300,000 Pat O'Brien Handicap. Seven furlongs.

* Grade II $350,000 Del Mar Derby. 1 1/8 miles. Turf.

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