GRANTS PASS — With four of the eight horses in the $31,100 Firecracker Futurity, Hector Magallanes doesn't exhibit the pressure of being a man on the hot seat.
The 32-year-old trainer from Boardman realizes he has a target on this back but seemed cool, calm and collected a few days prior to the biggest race of the season at Grants Pass Downs.
What: The 23rd annual running of the Fourth of July 350-yard 2-year-old quarter horse sprint at Grants Pass Downs.
Magallanes, whose Eagle B Gone triumphed in the 2013 Firecracker, will attempt to become only the second trainer in the 23-year history of the rich Fourth of July futurity to register back-to-back wins.
Only legendary trainer Baxter Andruss accomplished that feat en route to winning three straight from 1993 to 1995.
The big race began as the Far West Futurity in 1991 and was changed to the Firecracker in 2002. The 1992 race for 2-year-old quarter horses was rained out.
Magallanes, a California native who was raised in Boardman, has the second and third fastest qualifiers — Eye Opening Attitude and Fierce Dymand — to go with the sixth and seventh best — Chicks R Gone and Klassic Secret Br.
"They are young, inexperienced horses," says a relaxed Magallanes in the stable area of GP Downs on Wednesday, "so you don't know what they're going to do."
"When you have numbers, you have pretty good odds," adds Magallanes. "I feel we have a couple of horses that will jump up and do well. And you can't count out the other four either."
Magallanes parlayed a natural love of horses into that of a successful trainer. He credits fellow Boardman horseman Don Young with giving him an opportunity. As a 14-year-old, Magallanes got his start by cleaning stalls for Young.
"I learned the basics from (Young)," says Magallanes, "from wrapping a horse to everything."
Young, 78, affirms he gave Magallanes a chance but doesn't take credit for the young trainer's success.
"He just learned a lot of that stuff on his own," says Young. "He paid attention to what was going on and what was successful and he's done real good."
Magallanes already has seven futurity wins in a career that was launched at GP Downs in 2008 when the first two horses he entered ran first and second in the same race.
Young attributes Magallanes' patience as a key to the trainers' positive results.
"Those 2-year-olds don't know anything," says Young, whose Jess Be Hawkin won the 2012 Firecracker. "You have to teach them and it takes a while. It's repetition and he does it the same way every time so it doesn't confuse the horse."
Magallanes believes in a trial-and-error approach and not to rush a young horse too soon: "You try different things and learn from other people. The most important part is keeping them sound. You should build them up and go slow. If you work them too hard and too fast, you can develop leg issues."
Magallanes' four horses in the Firecracker are owned by four different people. Also the way the horses were acquired came by varied means. Two of the horses were purchased at a sale in California, one was bred and raised by Magallanes and the other his father purchased from a breeder in Boardman.
Magallanes states Eye Opening Attitude has demonstrated a lot of ability but is a spirited filly.
"Her name fits her real well," says Magallanes. "She has a bad attitude but she can run."
In her three outs, Eye Opening Attitude has posted two thirds and a second. The big gray horse by Mr Eye Opener out of the sire First Down Destiny finished third in the Pot of Gold futurity after running third in her trial. In her Firecracker heat, Mr Eye Opener lost by a nose to the winner in the fastest of three races.
Fierce Dymand, owned by Magallanes' father Ruben, won her Firecracker trial in her second race after a runner-up finish in a maiden race at the Union race meet on June 7.
Chicks R Gone, one of only two males in the futurity, has been Magallanes' hard-luck horse. Chicks R Gone placed fourth in his Firecracker trial despite hitting the inside rail and having jockey Kassie Gulielmino hanging off the side just before the finish line. In the Pot of Gold, the gelding won its trial and was jostled bad during a ninth place in the finals.
Magallanes fourth entry, Klassic Secret Br, is owned by former GP Downs leading jockey Troy Stillwell.
"There's a filly that doesn't do anything wrong," says Magallanes. "Every step of the way that filly has been so intelligent."
Pablo Madrigal, last year's winning owner, has two horses in the field. The fastest qualifier Diva B Gone is out of the same mare, Go Girl Gone, as last year's winner.
"Basically she's been winning everything," says Madrigal. "She's smart and quiet and she knows where she's going."
Diva B Gone has won two of her three starts. She was disqualified in a second-place Pot of Gold trial, then came back victoriously in the consolation.
Madrigal's second horse, Lebron 6, was the fifth fastest in the trials.
"Don't be surprised if he wins the race," says Madrigal. "Every time he's getting better and better and better."
Prior to recently getting his trainer's license, Madrigal had both horses under the tutelage of Magallanes.
"First thing, me and Hector are pretty good friends, nothing has changed," says Madrigal. "Just now I decided to train. Absolutely, Hector has a lot of pressure now. He doesn't want to get beat. We want to win the race, too, but who knows what will happen."
Cops R Zoomin, the fourth fastest qualifier with four-time futurity winning jockey Tad Skaggs, and veteran trainer Bob Beckner's L Bar D Sweet Fantsy complete the field.
A new leading jockey and trainer will be crowned this year. The race is very competitive and should come down to the final weekend.
Jose Madrigal is the top jockey with 10 wins, while Jose Guerrero and Jake Samuels trail by two wins each and Kassie Guglielmino is in fourth with seven.
Four trainers are tied for the lead with five wins. Debora Fergason currently heads the standings because of five seconds. Hector Magallanes, Silvester Juarez and Juan Marquez also have five wins apiece.
Last year, Luis Gonzalez was the leading jockey with 20 wins and Don Young won the second of back-to-back best trainer awards with six wins.
Jockeys Eduardo Gutierrez-Sosa, Jose Antonio Figueroa and Eddie Aceves are coming in from Les Bois track in Boise, Idaho for mounts in the Firecracker.
Jockey Jose Madrigal qualified two horses for the finals but will ride Fierce Dymand in the futurity.
The 2014 season has been very successful at the gate and on money wagered after six racing days. The track attendance (16,005) is up 17 percent, with an average daily figure of 2,375.
The handle is up an impressive $43,734, which translates to a 23 percent gain. The track has handled $236,030 compared to $192,296 at this point in 2013.
Tag Wotherspoon, GP Downs director of marketing and communications, has several promotions planned for the final weekend.
Don Jackson, the godfather of horse racing in Southern Oregon, is being honored on Saturday with Don Jackson Day. All fans wearing Jackson's signature fedora hat will receive free admission. Jackson passed away on July 11, 2012 at the age of 86.
Captain Gavel returns to defend his title in the Don Jackson Memorial. The race is Saturday's feature with a $4,000 purse.
Fan Appreciation Day will be celebrated on Sunday's finale. There will be a free drawing for prizes after every race. You must be present to win.
Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480, or email email@example.com