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Trainer Phillip D’Amato, left, and jockey Antonio Fresu savor Easter’s victory in the Seabiscuit Handicap on Nov. 25, 2023, at Del Mar. (Benoit Photo)
Trainer Phillip D’Amato, left, and jockey Antonio Fresu savor Easter’s victory in the Seabiscuit Handicap on Nov. 25, 2023, at Del Mar. (Benoit Photo)
Kevin Modesti, Los Angeles Daily News

ARCADIA — Visitors to Phil D’Amato’s barn at Santa Anita are greeted by bright white wooden plaques with neat blue numbers advertising the thoroughbred trainer’s impressive career totals in stakes victories and track championships.

D’Amato’s next stakes win might deserve a plaque of its own.

When he saddles the 3-year-old colt Stronghold for the $750,000, Grade I Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, D’Amato will be seeking the biggest win of his life and a chance for a career-defining win in the May 4 Kentucky Derby.

“It’s definitely looked at as the Super Bowl of our sport more than any other race in the country,” D’Amato said of the Kentucky Derby. “Just to get there is a feat. To get there and win it is an exceptional feat. We’ve got to get there first.”

Stronghold, ridden by Antonio Fresu, is the 5-2 second choice on the Santa Anita Derby morning line, behind 8-5 favorite Imagination and ahead of 5-1 Tapalo, 5-1 Mc Vay, 8-1 Wynstock, 10-1 Tessuto, 20-1 E J Won the Cup and 20-1 Curlin’s Kaos.

Imagination and Wynstock are ineligible for the Kentucky Derby because Churchill Downs added a third year to trainer Bob Baffert’s suspension resulting from Medina Spirit’s disqualification from victory in the 2021 Derby. That leaves Stronghold and five other Santa Anita Derby runners to battle for qualifying points awarded to top-five finishers.

To add enough points to his column to ensure a spot in the 20-horse field at Churchill, Stronghold probably must finish third or better in the Santa Anita Derby. A fourth-place finish might be good enough too, depending on the results of other races Saturday. The Blue Grass Stakes, in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Wood Memorial, in New York, round out the final week of major Triple Crown preps.

It’s a new experience for D’Amato, 48, a San Pedro native who was an assistant to training giant Mike Mitchell before taking over the stable when Mitchell retired 10 years ago this month. Mitchell died of cancer the following year.

D’Amato has established himself as one of Southern California’s top trainers. The signs on the barn’s exterior remind you he has led meets in victories 12 times and has won 18 elite Grade I races along with more than 100 Grade II’s and III’s. The biggest, from a national perspective, was Obviously’s front-running win with jockey Flavien Prat in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint at Santa Anita.

But his reputation has been built on success with horses specializing in turf-course races, an emphasis he says he and most of his clients settled on because it’s generally less expensive to buy young horses whose pedigrees and conformation are suited to grass than those built for dirt main tracks. In simple terms, turf horses tend to be more lightly built, dirt horses more solidly built, like the difference between human distance runners and sprinters.

Although turf racing has grown in prominence in America in recent decades, dirt-track classics such as the Triple Crown races remain the heart of the sport here.

That’s why getting to the Kentucky Derby would be a huge stride for D’Amato, whose closest brush with the race has been running horses on the undercard.

“We’ve ventured out and bought some more nice dirt-pedigreed fillies, but this is one of the few times I’ve been fortunate enough to get a really good-pedigreed dirt colt,” D’Amato said in his barn office. “You need many of them to get to the Derby. Hopefully Stronghold is enough.”

Stronghold, bred by owners Rick and Sharon Waller, is a son of 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Ghostzapper and the D’Amato-trained stakes-winning mare Spectator. Adding emotion to the connections’ story, Spectator died while giving birth to her only foal.

The sire’s and dam’s wins on dirt told D’Amato that Stronghold should be tried on the main track. He flashed promise immediately, finishing second at Ellis Park in Kentucky and then breaking his maiden at Churchill Downs in races against horses who have been on the Derby trail. A close second to Wynstock in the Los Alamitos Futurity ended his 2-year-old season on a high.

A February win in the Sunland Derby, in New Mexico, made Stronghold a Derby possibility – but not yet a contender.

“I think at this stage, four, five weeks out, you need a horse that’s improving,” D’Amato said. “I’m definitely seeing that in the morning, and we’re hoping to see it in the afternoon.”

Strong morning workouts the past two weeks say Stronghold is sharp. Training with Fresu has made him more tractable, which should allow him to sit behind the several front-runners early in the Santa Anita Derby’s 1-1/8 miles.

“I definitely think he’s a horse with potential (who is) getting better with age, and we’re all hoping that he’s a potential Kentucky Derby horse,” D’Amato said. “We’re kind of on the cusp here, and we’ll know a lot more after the Santa Anita Derby.

“It would mean a lot.”

The Santa Anita Derby is scheduled for 4:45 p.m. as the 10th race Saturday. It’s one of five stakes, including the $300,000, Grade II Santa Anita Oaks. The 12-race card starts at noon.