Owner Vic Carlson leaned against the wall of Barn 41 April 29 at Churchill Downs waiting for his Musket Man to head to the track for his morning gallop. The one-time high school athletic director turned money-machine magnate has been to the Kentucky Derby before, but not with some skin in the game.
“The first time I was here was when Thunder Gulch won in ’95,” the 61-year-old Carlson said. “My eyes were wide open. We were in the 100-level seats, right on the edge of the track there. (Jockey Gary) Stevens came flying by and didn’t have a speck of dirt on him and everybody else was covered in mud. And he came from off the pace; it wasn’t like he led all the way.
“That’s when I realized the Kentucky Derby was all about the trip.”
Carlson, along with co-owner Eric Fein and trainer Derek Ryan, are hoping Musket Man gets the trip May 2 against 19 rivals in the $2-million Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
The colt, a son of Yonaguska, was plucked out of the Keeneland September yearling sale for $15,000 from the Hidden Brook consignment. After an impressive two-length win in the April 4 Illinois Derby (gr. II), he’s earned $572,600.
“We pinhook horses, and I bought this horse at Keeneland as a pinhook horse,” he said. “We’re not big money players. That year, we were pinhooking six and we sold about half of them. We took him to the Maryland sale (Fasig-Tipton Midlantic) and couldn’t get anything for him, so we decided to keep him.”
Carlson, who lives outside Portland, Ore., and owns First National PTM, a firm that sells, distributes, and places ATM machines across the western United States, pinhooks horses with Ciaran Dunne’s Wavertree Stables near Ocala, Fla. He’s had some success. A few years ago he bought a filly by Officer for $35,000 and sold her for $100,000.
“I bought one filly by Tapit for $7,000…you know that was before Tapit was Tapit and sold her for $65,000,” Carlson said.
With Musket Man, “we got him out to the track and Derek started telling me how good he was.”
Musket Man made his debut last October at Belmont Park, winning a six-furlong maiden race by 3 ½ lengths. He followed that with an entry-level allowance win at Philadelphia Park in mid-November. Wintering at Tampa, he progressed from 2 to 3 smoothly with a one-length win in the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes.
Then came a long, strange trip in the two-turn Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) that resulted in a third-place finish, followed by traffic-filled, but victorious run in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III).
“He got into all sorts of trouble in the Tampa Bay Derby,” Carlson said. “He got steadied going into the first turn. The rider started using him and bit; then he got shut off in a blind switch.”
And the horse they brought back home after an RNA bid of $35,000 last May was bringing in some bids of seven figures along the way.
“We’ve had some offers on this horse; we turned down a big one,” Carlson said, noting it was for several million dollars for a half-interest. “The reason we decided not to do it was because (the prospective buyer) wanted to change trainers. Eric and I think it’s a big deal for Derek. It does take some big balls to be loyal like that, but it’s the right thing to do.”
For Carlson, the right thing to do between now and Saturday is “keep the lid on and relax. I like handicapping and going to the races. Because of the crowd, we kind of stopped going to the Derby the last couple of years.”
This year, though, he’s on the other side of the velvet rope as the co-owner of Musket Man. So far, he’s enjoying the trip.