Written by: Katie Williams

In a string of firsts, leading Alberta trainer Robertino Diodoro and owner Bernie Ferbey won their first race at famed Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, California with their very first starter in the first race of the track’s 2010-’11 meeting.

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Cecilia Gustavvson photo

The hero for Diodoro and Ferbey, owner of PCS Holdings Corporation, was Skellytown, who won the 1 1/16 mile claiming race at 9 to 2 in a four-horse blanket finish with Victor Espinoza on board. The eight-year-old gelding and his interests are now in the history books as the first winner on Santa Anita’s new dirt surface.

The track had replaced its original dirt surface with an allweather track that was problematic and ripped out in mid 2010. Like many northern horsemen, Diodoro has long sought refuge from the unforgiving Canadian winters with a string of runners in the warmer climates of the southern United States. Over the last four years Diodoro and his wife Nikki have chosen to call Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona their home. In 2010, hot off his leading season at Northlands Park and armed with owners game for bigger action, the top conditioner decided to take on the Southern California racing scene.

For 77 years, Santa Anita Park has had a reputation of grandeur and class among horsemen and owners. One visit to the historic race track will leave you wanting more, and that’s precisely what happened to Diodoro. On his first visit to Santa Anita over 12 years ago, Diodoro remembers, “It definitely left a first impression. From there I had it in my head that sometime down the road, that’s where a guy would like to be.” Skellytown’s owner, Ferbey, echoes the same sentiments that Southern California remains, in his mind, “the home of true horse racing and I wanted to be a big part of that.”

The decision of the track’s owner, MI Development Inc, to remove the cushion/Pro Ride Hybrid surface caught the attention of horsemen across North America. The change back to a dirt surface was another one of the pushes for Diodoro to come to southern California. The trainer currently travels between his 40 stall barn in Phoenix and the 17 stalls in California where Nikki is at the helm of the day-to-day operations.

While the industry continually looks to bring new owners into the sport, Ferbey had already been bitten by the bug at an early age. His father, the late George Ferbey, was his introduction to the race track, owning over 20 horses for most of Ferbeys’ childhood. As early as five-years-old, Ferbey spent his days at the racetrack with his father and by age eight was selling used programs, handicapping and making bets. Ferbey explains, “I basically grew up at the track and came almost everyday, so it was in my blood as it is with most people who have been around the sport.”

He explains that it took time for him to become an owner while he searched for the right barn and trainer. “Timing is everything in creating success,” said Ferbey. “I believe the day I met Robertino it was time. He presented himself as professional person from head to toe and spoke with passion about the same goals and plans that I wanted.”

Given his background, Ferbey is very apt at reading a Form and is involved in finding horses for claiming and purchase. Skellytown was one of those “Ferbey Finds”. “Being eightyears- old and being at the stakes level at one time in his career, this victory and piece of history is well deserved,” he says. “I am glad he can get that recognition because he still trains hard and never gives up.”

This wasn’t Skellytown’s first trip to the win circle at Santa Anita. The Grade II placed gelding by Thunder Gulch has seen 28 starts for earnings amassing $202,272. Bred in Kentucky by Madeleine A. Paulson and Diamond A Racing, Skellytown has seen lots of claiming action in Southern California. In April of 2010 he won a three-way photo finish for trainer Richard Mandella, only to be claimed in a three-way shake by trainer Mike Mitchell. Skellytown joined the Diodoro Racing Stable during the Hollywood Park meet via a claim box. Diodoro explains, “I’ve always liked older class horses. Looking at six, seven and eight-year-olds horses, they got talent and heart. You’ve always got to like that in a horse.”

Coming into Santa Anita’s opening day, both trainer and owner felt they might have a good chance for the win. Ferbey shares, “We never put two and two together of what this race could be until a few days after entries, even though we all played it cool, we all knew how nice it would be to win this race for us two rookies coming into Santa Anita.”

Diodoro said of Skellytown’s chances, “I felt confident in the horse. He had a couple of rough trips out in Phoenix and we had the horse there early enough, he was training good four or five days before the race. On paper in that race he was a standout in class.”

When asked if he had received any words of wisdom or encouraging text messages going into his first race day at Santa Anita, Diodoro laughed with the response, “Only about 10 of them from Bernie. He was pretty pumped up. He’s been very supportive not only on his own horses, but other horses I’ve ran.” Jokingly, Ferbey sent Diodoro a text message with a photo of Zenyatta and Mike Smith making the number one motion with his finger. The professional relationship has quickly grown into a friendship, as evidenced by the ongoing banter made between the trainer and owner.

While Diodoro and Nikki were among the 34,268 people present on opening day, Nancy and Bernie Ferbey watched from their home in Edmonton, Alberta. Known for his stoic demeanour, Diodoro relives Skellytown coming down the lane to the history making win. “He [Skellytown] was on the rail and I didn’t want him to go wide. Then in the last 100 yards I started hollering and just going nuts! I started going down the stairs.” The horses hit the wire four across forcing a photo finish. Stopped in his tracks by the slow motion replay, Diodoro started doubting his assumption that his horse was first to the wire. The Santa Anita rookie then further panicked that he had possibly just made a complete spectacle of himself en route to the pending winners circle. “I was thinking if his number didn’t come up I wasn’t going back up to that box seat!”

North of the 49th Parallel, the Ferbey household was a different story. Watching at home with his family, including his 75-year-old mother, Anne, Ferbey recalls, “I felt we had it but when I saw the photo I was in shock of how close it was!” Much screaming and high-fiving followed. Ferbey feels blessed to be able to share his equine journey with his mother. “Its good energy for her at this time in her life. My only regret is I wish my Dad could have joined me in this adventure so I could give it back to him, but we know he is watching!”