By Katie Petrunyak
This week, Larry Rivelli is counting himself lucky in more ways than one. Before this year, he had never seriously considered ever running a horse in the Kentucky Derby, but here he is now in Barn 1 at Churchill Downs with a 12-1 morning line contender. After training for more than two decades, Rivelli is sharing his first Derby journey with an ownership group that he calls family.
Two Phil's (Hard Spun), the winner of the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks and a seasoned veteran among the Derby contenders with eight lifetime starts, is owned by a collection of Chicagoans who, like Rivelli, are hoping to make their hometown proud.
“I believe War Emblem was the last horse from Chicago to run in the Derby and win,” said Rivelli, who followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncle by basing his stable in Chicago. “That's as far as I can remember in 20-some years of doing this. Back home, all my friends and owners and trainers are sending me texts saying, 'We're behind you Riv! Get the money!' We've been on a zillion podcasts and articles in Chicago, so hopefully we can represent well. I think we will.”
The first Phil that Two Phil's is named after is his co-owner and breeder Phillip Sagan, an advertising executive in Bloomingdale who is still relatively new to the Thoroughbred breeding business. The second Phil represents the father of the Sagans' family friend Jerry La Sala. Once a Chicago-based jockey, La Sala played a role in the decision to mate Sagan's mare Mia Torri (General Quarters) with Hard Spun.
Sagan co-owns Two Phil's with Patricia's Hope LLC, a longtime Rivelli client with strong ties to Chicago. Vince Foglia Sr. founded the medical devise company Sage Products, which is based just outside of Chicago. Later with his wife Pat, he established a nonprofit outreach called The Foglia Foundation in their home city. Their son Vinnie got connected with Rivelli years ago and the rest is history.
“The Foglias are like family to me,” said Rivelli. “Vinnie is like a brother to me. We bought houses close to each other. We golf all the time. His mother Patricia and his father Vince are fantastic people.”
“We're all Italian and we've kind of got a whole vibe going on,” Rivelli added with a laugh. “It's a really great relationship to actually do something like this with a friend. It's like I'm happier for him than I am for me and I think vice versa. They're the same way. They're great people and I'm just fortunate to be a part of their lives.”
While Two Phil's is now a serious Derby contender, he was once a horse that slipped through the cracks in the sales ring. He was a $150,000 RNA at Keeneland September and he failed to garner much interest the following spring at OBS. The Sagans decided to send the colt to Rivelli, hoping that the conditioner could get a win on his record as a juvenile and they could find a buyer from there.
At first, Rivelli did not know what to make of the big chestnut.
“My earliest memory was the first or second day that I got him,” he recalled. “We know this now, but from 10:30 to 11:30 every morning, he sleeps. It doesn't matter what's going on. There could be a circus in town and he just loves to sleep. Other horses walking by, blacksmiths banging shoes, it doesn't matter. That's my first memory of the horse.”
Rivelli's second memory of Two Phil's was the first time he worked in company and easily bested some of the more talented horses in the Rivelli stable.
When Rivelli realized the colt's potential, he reached out to the Foglias in the hopes that he could keep the horse in his barn. It was an easy sell. Patricia's Hope purchased 80% ownership, with the Sagans staying in for a piece and later selling 10% of their share to Madaket Stables.
While Two Phil's has never actually raced in Illinois, he has trained out of Rivelli's barn at Hawthorne Park and shipped to six different tracks, collecting four wins and two more placings from eight career starts. Rivelli decided to keep the same routine for the Derby, with Two Phil's putting in his final five-furlong prep in :59 flat on Mar 27. at Hawthorne before heading to Churchill Downs on Sunday.
“We stayed home as long as I could,” his conditioner noted. “I had no issues with him because he ran on this track before and won on it, so I was confident that there would be no guessing about if he liked the track.”
Rivelli will readily admit that while Two Phil's is already a winner at Churchill, having claimed the GIII Street Sense S. last October, the big question surrounding the colt is about just how strong his affinity for synthetic might be. His 101 Beyer Speed Figure at Turfway Park in the Jeff Ruby, which is the biggest number among the Derby contenders, is 13 Beyer points higher than his second-best figure from a second-place finish in the GIII Lecomte S. in January.
Was getting ready to sit down for an interview with trainer Larry Rivelli when Two Phil's stuck his head in to remind everyone who the real star of the show is 😆@theTDN feature on the @KentuckyDerby-bound son of @DarleyAmerica's Hard Spun coming soon! pic.twitter.com/htHTG9ez13
— Katie Petrunyak (@katiep_tdn) May 1, 2023
“The Jeff Ruby was the most impressive race to me by far,” said Rivelli. “If he can emulate that race, I think he'll win. He has a race over this track in the mud and won. There was less competition in that race–not a Forte (Violence) or horses like that–but he couldn't be going into this race any better and that's all we can ask for.”
With Jareth Loveberry aboard (read more on that from Chris McGrath here), Two Phil's drew the number three post position for Saturday's race.
Rivelli has taken four horses to the Breeders' Cup, bringing home three fourth place finishes and a fifth, but the Derby never seemed like a realistic dream for the conditioner. Even after the Jeff Ruby Steaks victory, Rivelli said he tried his best to tamp down his Derby dreaming.
“We don't normally point for the Derby because of the type of horses that we've had,” he explained. “But as a horse trainer, it's like you're a football player and you always want to go to the Super Bowl. It's the ultimate goal. Two weeks ago, everyone is saying 'Congratulations! You made it to the Derby!' But I would tell them that we didn't make it yet. I know a lot can happen.”
Now that Derby week is well underway and the Two Phil's contingent is in Louisville, the dream is starting to become a reality for Rivelli as he represents his grandfather and uncle that went before him, his fellow Chicago horsemen back home and, perhaps in some ways, his beloved Arlington Park, where he won nine training titles before it closed two years ago.
“I'm not nervous,” Rivelli reflected. “I know once they start loading in the gate, I'll be able to feel my heart rate racing a little bit like it always does even when I'm running in a $5,000 or a $50,000 race. I don't feel any pressure because everyone is just happy that we made it. It's something that we have a passion for. It's my livelihood. When you train for good people that are just happy to be part of it, there's really no pressure, which makes it easier for me. We can enjoy the ride and if we win, we're going to tear the town down.”