Chambeau, TJ Aguirre, and the long road to the starting gate

Whatever owner-breeder Sam English had in mind when he bred his Not for Love mare If Not for Lust to the Japanese-bred stallion Karakontie in 2016, it’s a pretty safe bet it wasn’t this: a horse that by July 1 of her five-year-old season would remain unraced.

Five years old. Zero starts. Pretty much an owner’s nightmare.

But, as it turned out, also her trainer’s dream. Because when 27-year-old trainer T. J. Aguirre finally did get the mare, now named Chambeau, to the races, she reciprocated by winning at first asking.

In a stakes race.

To give him his first stakes win as a trainer.

“Unbelievable feeling,” Aguirre said. “I was really blessed for that opportunity.”

Under jockey Horacio Karamanos, Chambeau sped to the lead in the July 11 Tyson Gilpin Stakes for Virginia-bred/sired fillies and mares and drew away to win by over three lengths.

It was a modest group she faced, and Chambeau had been touting herself in the mornings. She had posted the fastest work of the day in three of the four works on the page and the second-fastest in the fourth.

But still. You had to be uncertain. Five-year-old firster and all. Right?

“When it came to it, I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to win that race,” Aguirre said.

Chambeau entered the Gilpin with six works under her belt, the last three with Karamanos up, the first three with Aguirre himself. It was the first of those following her April arrival in the barn, Aguirre said, that tipped him off that his mare might have some talent.

“My dad, who timed the work for me, said, ‘How fast do you think she went?’ I said, ‘Real fast,’” Aguirre remembered. “He said it was 35 1/5 [for three furlongs]. I said, ‘I believe it. She pulled my guts out.’

Fast. But also five. In a game in which many horses race at two, and virtually all have started by late in their three-year-old season, five is a long time to wait.

“She was a bit of a nutball. This is her first real shot at the racetrack,” the trainer said. “She was a handful breaking, and they didn’t get her fully broke until her three-year-old year.”

She spent some time in Aguirre’s father Tony’s barn last year but still wasn’t ready to settle down to work. Even to this day, T. J. Aguirre said, she requires much attention and extra-careful handling.

“She’s afraid of everything and anything,” Aguirre said. “She’s quick to push the eject button on you. Doesn’t matter if you’re on her back, either, if she’s ready to get out of Dodge.”

But – gradually, gradually and with much coaxing – she began to settle into life as a racehorse.

“I was the only one that could get her in and out of her stall,” he recalled. “I had to take her from the hotwalker every day to put her back in the stall. And then when it was time to give a leg up to the rider, I had to go inside the stall myself, and I had a little trick I played with her: I put my finger inside her mouth, and I played with her lips and her nose and just kind of played with her face a little. Next thing you know she’s following me everywhere I go.”

Finally, the team had Chambeau ready to run. The plan was to run in a maiden claimer at Laurel in late June, then the Gilpin. Everything was finally falling into place.

“But the race doesn’t go [in late June],” he remembered. “The race comes back on July 2. For the June race we were eligible to enter, but July 1 HISA [the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority] comes in, they implement all these rules, and now we have to work off the vets’ list because four-year-olds and up that have not raced have to work off the vets’ list. Only 24 hours ago, I was able to enter, now I have to work off the vets’ list.”

Chambeau officially breezed a half-mile in 47 seconds flat July 1. That made her eligible to run, but of course necessitated the horse making her debut in the Gilpin. One more obstacle for a horse who found no shortage of them.

“You gotta have patience,” Aguirre admitted.

Aguirre grew up around racing. Dad Tony, an exercise rider and former jockey, has trained 162 winners over the last 20 years. Mom Kaymarie Kreidel, a former jockey, is an outrider and achieved national acclaim when, in 2019, she and pony Witch Hunter captured the riderless Bodexpress following the running of the Preakness.

Chambeau won the Tyson Gilpin Stakes at Colonial Downs. Photo Coady Photography.

But after his beloved pony died when he was 11, Aguirre turned to other pursuits, like football, seemingly leaving racing behind. It was only later, as a community college student in need of cash, that he found his way to the track.

He began by walking hots for his father, moved on to rubbing horses, later began galloping, finding work with trainers like Hugh McMahon and Mike Trombetta along the way, he said.

He struck out on his own as a trainer in 2019. In September of that year, he lodged his first victory when then-two-year-old Benny Havens won a maiden claimer on the turf. And then: pandemic. Equine herpesvirus outbreak. Laurel’s track surface woes.

He won two more races in 2021, but it wasn’t until this year that things began to improve considerably. That’s in large part because he and his father combined operations this year, with T. J. the trainer of record.

“We kind of teamed up,” Aguirre said. “If it wasn’t for his owners trusting me to stay with us… They could have gone anywhere else, but they were like, ‘No, we trust Tony, and he believes in you. Why can’t we? We believed in him.’”

The Aguirre operation has 25 horses in training now, 15 at Laurel and another 10 at Colonial Downs. Tony oversees the Colonial operation, while T. J. runs the Laurel barn. It’s an arrangement that runs smoothly, T. J. said, but it can pose challenges.

Take the day of Chambeau’s stakes win. It was also the day T. J. and Tony were due to fly – on separate flights – to Las Vegas for T. J.’s bachelor party. He and fiancee Ashley Lowe, who took care of the Laurel horses while he was in Vegas, are getting married in August.

T. J. was up early to care for the horses at Laurel. Then he drove to Colonial for the race. Got the win. DId an interview. Hugged the jockey. Then drove back to Maryland to board his flight.

All of which made for a long, tiring, and tremendously satisfying day.

“Before she crossed the wire, the very first thing I said to my dad was, ‘We did it,’” Aguirre said. “That moment was unbelievable.”