HALLANDALE BEACH, FL– On Friday afternoon, the Gulfstream Park grandstand might just be transformed into a Venezuelan party. After capturing the prestigious Clasico Internacional del Caribe (G1) and sweeping the Venezuelan Triple Crown for fillies, champion Ninfa del Cielo, the pride of Venezuelan racing, is set to make her first start in North America at Gulfstream in a mile allowance race.
Ninfa del Cielo, a Venezuelan-bred daughter of Big Prairie and the Dynaformer mare Dynabid, captured eight of 10 career starts at La Rinconada Racetrack in Venezuela, including seven graded stakes as well as six Grade 1 events, including the Clasico Internacional del Caribe, Clasico General Joaquin Crespo, Clasico Prensa Hipica Nacional and Clasico Hipodromo La Rinconada.
But after achieving those victories, owners El Oso Yogui concluded their champion filly had little left to accomplish in her home country, so they decided to send Ninfa del Cielo to the United States for a shot at racing’s elite. They chose Venezuelan native Oscar Gonzalez, who trained for them before moving to the U.S. a little more than a year ago, to oversee Ninfa del Cielo’s North American campaign.
“After I left [Venezuela], Juan Avila took over training for the owners,” Gonzalez said, “but when they decided to send the filly here, Avila recommended me.”
“I’m very lucky to have her,” he added. “I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Ninfa del Cielo arrived in South Florida from Venezuela three months ago and has trained steadily for Gonzalez ever since. The 4-year-old filly has breezed nine times over Gulfstream’s main track since June 5, including a bullet three-furlong gate work on June 26 in which she bested 21 workers, clocking in at :35.78 for the distance.
“She’s adjusting [to her new environment],” Gonzalez said. “She didn’t love the heat right away, but each work has gotten better and better. She’s doing well.”
Despite being a Venezuelan champion, Ninfa del Cielo will have the odds stacked against her when she runs in the United States. Previous champions from the country have traveled to the Northern Hemisphere before, and many have not been able to maintain their strong form. Venezuelan Champion filly Bambera, a 10-time Grade 1 winner, came to the United States in 2010 and debuted in Gulfstream’s Rampart Stakes (G3), where she finished eighth. In five starts, she never recorded a North American victory, though she was stakes placed at Delaware Park. She was eventually sold for $325,000 at the Keeneland November Sale in 2011 when in foal to Curlin.
Taconeo, another Venezuelan champion, was brought over two years earlier in 2008 after sweeping the Venezuelan Triple Crown and the prestigious Clasico Internacional Simon Bolivar (G1) in the same season, becoming the first horse to do so. In three North American starts, Taconeo could only manage a runner-up finish in the ungraded John’s Call Stakes at Saratoga. He eventually returned to Venezuela and would go on to win the Clasico Internacional Simon Bolivar for a second time in 2008.
Still, Gonzalez thinks he can buck the trend. He chose a softer spot for Ninfa del Cielo (“Nymph of Heaven” in Spanish), targeting an allowance race, and has given her plenty of time to settle in her new surroundings. The filly’s regular rider Emisael Jaramillo, regarded by many to be the greatest race rider in the history of Venezuelan horse racing, has also traveled to Gulfstream specifically to ride the filly. Gonzalez believes the race will be a good starting point for Ninfa del Cielo, who has not run since her Clasico Internacional del Caribe triumph on Dec. 7. No matter what happens in the United States, he knows no one will be able to take away what the filly has already accomplished.
“She’s a very strong filly,” Gonzalez said. “She’s small, but she has a very big heart. This filly is a champion.”
Photo: Ninfa del Cielo with Enrique Landaeta, assistant trainer.
Photo credit: Luis Rangel.