Rodriguez family primed for Distaff-Classic double

Long about 4:30 on Friday afternoon, after he has set the feed and neatened up the double-wide stall of a certain chestnut racehorse, Raul Rodriguez will wander over to the Santa Anita Park grandstand in Arcadia, California, in time to watch the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff.

He won't be alone. The Distaff could be the most compelling event in the 13-race Breeders' Cup gallery, which will be spread over two warm and dry Southern California days and feature such international stars as California Chrome, Tepin, Flintshire and Found.

The Distaff, at 1⅛ miles on the main track, has become that perfect storm of a horse race. Those getting the most attention are Beholder, who won the Distaff in 2013 on her way to the 3-year-old filly championship; Stellar Wind, who finished an unlucky second last year to clinch 3-year-old filly honors; and Songbird, the de facto 3-year-old filly champion of 2016 who will be facing her elders for the first time.

Rodriguez, 59, is the groom who takes care of California Chrome for Art and Alan Sherman's stable. They don't have a runner in the Distaff hunt -- California Chrome takes center stage on Saturday in the $6 million Classic -- but Rodriguez will be cheering on Songbird for all he's worth. His son Edgar Rodriguez is Songbird's regular exercise rider and boon traveling companion, a role he has played throughout the filly's career of 11 starts without a defeat.

Such father-son stories are not uncommon around the racetrack. Racing is, after all, a family business, whether the family is the Whitneys, the Hancocks or the House of Windsor.

Ben Jones and his son Jimmy were the dominant American classic trainers for two decades from 1938 to 1958. Marion Van Berg perennially was among the leading trainers before his son Jack won nine national titles in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

There were four generations of the Burch clan who that their marks in the game, as did the Parke brothers of Idaho, while California has had its own Jones boys, from Farrell to Gary to Marty.

The Breeders' Cup of 2016 is no less a family affair. Aidan O'Brien will go head-to-head with his son, the fledgling trainer Joseph O'Brien, in the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Friday. Keith Desormeaux will send out With Honors in the Juvenile Fillies, while his brother Kent has three Breeders' Cup rides, including First Lady Stakes winner Photo Call in the mile.

The Ortiz brothers have become a family to reckon with -- Jose and Irad have 15 Breeders' Cup mounts between them. Norman Casse, son of Mark Casse, rarely lets defending mile champ Tepin out of his sight, while Riley Mott has become an important part of the operation for his Hall of Fame father, Bill Mott.

Raul and Florentina Rodriguez have three sons.

"Raul Jr. is 32, Edgar just turned 30, and Freddie is 28," said their father. "Two years apart. After the last one, I told my wife, 'That's it. No more.'"

The Rodriguez family comes from the state of Jalisco in Mexico, where Edgar and Raul Jr. were born. Freddie was born in Northern California after Raul went to work at Golden Gate Fields, eventually landing a job with the Shermans.

"When he was old enough, Edgar worked at the barn," Raul said one morning this week in California Chrome's secluded corner of the Santa Anita backstretch.

"When he started to gallop horses, Art comes to me and says, 'He's pretty good. Has he ridden before?'" Raul said. "'Yes,' I said. 'Since he was little, he rode quarter horses at our farm all the time -- all the boys.'"

Raul Jr. is a groom with the Sherman stable, and Freddie works alongside Edgar in the Jerry Hollendorfer barn, where Songbird resides. Edgar's adventures with Songbird began last year when the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro made an impressive debut at Del Mar.

"I remember Edgar told me when she was entered, I should come out and see the race," Raul recalled. "He said she looked like something special. He was right, don't you think?"

When Songbird took to the road this year for a campaign that included a monthlong stay at Saratoga for the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama, Hollendorfer and his assistant Dan Ward made sure Edgar was with the filly every step of the way.

"You don't like to let her out of your sight for too long," Ward said. "But Edgar knows her so well. He took good care of her."

Watching the younger Rodriguez aboard Songbird is a treat. Then again, she could make any rider look good, but Edgar clicks in perfect harmony with her occasional fussing before they dip into the silky smooth rhythm that has held up through 16 months of training and competition.

"She is bigger now, sure," Edgar said. "More mature. And she never gets tired."

His father, who has California Chrome as a benchmark Thoroughbred, has nothing but admiration for his son's work with Songbird.

"She has a lot of condition," Raul said. "You can see that. I'm very excited to watch her run because it's going to be a great race."

And what if the Rodriguez family sweeps the table with victories in both the Distaff and the Classic?

"Well, we were too busy to celebrate Edgar's birthday the other day," Raul replied. "So, we'll do that next week at Los Alamitos, get a nice table and have dinner. Maybe we'll have even more to celebrate."