Looming tall among the outsiders in the field for the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Saturday is Giant Expectations. That's "giant" as in his sire, Frost Giant, and "expectations," as in what were dashed after he left the stage with a health scare that offered no guarantees he would ever see a starting gate again, let alone come back to win races like the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien last summer and the Grade 2 San Antonio on Dec. 26.
"He's got a lot of heart, that's for sure," said Ryan Exline, who owns the 5-year-old in partnership with Justin Border.
A lot of heart, and more than enough ability to have earned a shot at a decent chunk of the $16 million being advertised as the total purse. Giant Expectations, trained at Santa Anita by Peter Eurton, is a latecomer to the field courtesy of one of three Pegasus slots controlled by The Stronach Group, which is putting on the show. As such, his owners will be in for a smaller piece of the pie than those who invested at the full $1 million buy-in.
From any angle it's a large order, since Giant Expectations will face a field that includes not only Gun Runner, who will be the freshly crowned Horse of the Year, but also Stellar Wind, Collected, West Coast, Sharp Azteca, and the British invader Toast of New York, last seen on these shores nearly winning the 2014 Breeders' Cup Classic.
Still, if Saturday is his best day for Gary Stevens, his regular rider, Giant Expectations could be part of the mix. He beat Collected easily in the San Antonio, and to that point in 2017 the only horse who had finished in front of Collected was Gun Runner.
"I didn't sleep very good last night thinking about it," Exline said Tuesday as he prepared to head to Florida. "To get an opportunity like this is really something special. I'm sure in the next few days I'll be more apprehensive as we get closer to it."
If the Exline-Border partnership rings a familiar bell it is because they also were part of the ownership of recently retired Champagne Room, winner of the 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Eclipse Award for the division. They hold the majority interest in Giant Expectations, a $135,000 Ocala 2-year-old, while sharing the fun with Garett Zubok and the father-son team of Dan and Nick Gatto.
Since the Pegasus is a shiny, new event, it's only right that relative newcomers like Border and Exline are involved. Traditions have to start somewhere, and these guys represent the two most foolproof ways people get hooked on the game.
Exline, 36, is an Indiana transplant who admits to never going near horse racing, let alone the Kentucky Derby, despite growing up an hour from Louisville. After earning his degree at Indiana University, he went to work in senior living management in North San Diego County, which eventually led to a day at the races at Del Mar.
"I had no idea what I was doing," Exline said. "We had fun, won some money, and the next thing you know I'm there every day, handicapping, betting, trying to figure the sport out."
Border, 43, is a native of Northern California who was raised around horses in Brentwood, a little town in the San Francisco East Bay. He lives in the central California town of Paso Robles, ground zero for his occupational therapy and post-op rehab company,Titan Healthcare Solutions.
"I was 5 when I learned to ride on our first Quarter Horse, Red Bert Bailey," Border said. "Bailey was a great all-around horse -- run, cut, he could do anything. I learned about horses from him."
Bailey died from a fatal bout with colic when Border was 7.
"It was a life lesson for a little kid, but it certainly didn't put me off loving horses and wanting to take care of them," Border said.
Giant Expectations, a robust chestnut with a small star and some white behind, showed considerable promise in his first few maiden races. His best effort was a second to Arrogate at Santa Anita in June 2016.
He regressed in his next start, however, after which Eurton and his vets discovered a lesion on one of Giant's giant lungs from an infected abscess. Immediate treatment was required, followed by half a year of recovery and a slow road back to fitness. Giant Expectations returned to the races at Belmont Park last May and took advantage of his New York breeding line to win two races in a span of 11 days.
"All credit to Pete and his crew for being on top of it from the start," Border said. "There was some doubt that he could come back to the horse we thought he was, but there was never any question about him getting all the time needed."
In addition to his senior care management career, Exline also is co-founder of Casa Agria Specialty Ales, a brewery in Oxnard that won a 2017 Great American Beer Festival gold medal. Among their ales is one called Champagne Room, which will be served on Saturday at a Santa Anita Park microbrew festival while Giant Expectations flies the flag at Gulfstream Park. And if he wins? Exline laughed.
"If he wins the Pegasus," he said, "we'll definitely brew a Giant Expectations."