Saffie Joseph Jr. had good reason to celebrate when he successfully defended his Championship Meet training title over Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher last season. The 36-year-old Barbados native, however, was denied the chance to savor those back-to-back titles at Gulfstream Park's prestigious winter session for very long.
Following the sudden deaths of two horses in competition at Churchill Downs less than a month later, Joseph was suspended by the Louisville, Ky., track May 4 during a period of a high number of equine fatalities there. The Joseph-trained Lord Miles, the Wood Memorial (G2) winner, was not allowed to run in the Kentucky Derby (G1) two days later.
Churchill Downs reinstated Joseph following a Kentucky Horse Racing Commission investigation that found no conclusive causes for the deaths of the Ken Ramsey-owned horses.
"It broke me," Joseph said of the emotional toll of dealing with the tragic deaths of two horses and Churchill Downs' subsequent action against him, "but it made me stronger, if anything. I give all the credit to our team and all the owners who have supported me."
Although owners C2 Racing Stable and La Milagrosa Stable continued to support Joseph, their 2022 Florida Derby (G1) winner White Abarrio was moved to trainer Richard Dutrow in the spring amid uncertainty regarding Joseph's racing status in New York at the time.
Joseph prefers to look to the future rather than dwell on the past while gearing up for his quest for a three-peat at the Championship Meet that gets underway Friday.
"I just want to get better—that's always my goal," Joseph said. "This year we've had a lot of adversity, and everyone stuck together. It taught me all about life."
"They're going to the Pegasus, and I think we have a good shot to win. If everything breaks right, I think we have two strong contenders," Joseph said.
Skippylongstocking, a multiple graded-stakes winner, is coming off a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Santa Anita. O'Connor returned to winning form in his most recent start in the Fayette Stakes (G2) at Keeneland.
"O'Connor, it was good to see him finally have a good race. I always thought a lot of him. He was impressive in his debut, and then he disappointed in the Harlan's Holiday and ran bad in last year's Pegasus," Joseph said. "It gave him confidence. It gave us confidence. He's probably going to run in the (Dec. 30) Harlan's Holiday (G3) before the Pegasus."
Joseph hopes to get off to a fast start with a stakes victory on opening weekend, when he is scheduled to saddle undefeated R Harper Rose in the $300,000 My Dear Girl, the 1 1/16-mile final of the fillies division of the 2023 FTBOA Florida Sire Stakes.
Joseph prevailed over Pletcher last season to defend the first Championship Meet title that he won over the Hall of Famer during the 2021-2022 season. Following a second-place finish for the 2020-2021 Championship Meet, during which Pletcher won his 18th consecutive title at the prestigious winter meet, Joseph has won eight consecutive titles at Gulfstream Park, including the recently concluded Sunshine Meet in which he tied Victor Barboza Jr.This press release has been edited for content and style by BloodHorse Staff.