Inside Track: Great Expectations

Inside Track: Great Expectations
Photo: Louise Reinagel
Nicanor just prior to leaving Florida for Fair Hill, Maryland.
On the morning of April 30, as the eyes of the nation turned to Churchill Downs for the upcoming running of the 134th Kentucky Derby, a Brook Ledge horse van arrived at Stephens Thoroughbreds in Ocala, Fla. While trainer Michael Matz supervised the training of his Derby contender, Visionaire, a groom named Vincente Gordstieta led a promising 2-year-old into a spacious box stall and settled him down for the long drive to Maryland. Nicanor was shipping to Fair Hill.

Fans across the nation, touched by the story of Roy and Gretchen Jackson’s Barbaro, the late winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), were eagerly awaiting news of his full brother. Nicanor’s next step toward a racing career would be observed with an interest normally reserved for an already accomplished runner. Through his family, the son of Dynaformer had attracted a fan base of his own. For those who had overseen Nicanor’s training the past nine months, it was a momentous occasion.

“I feel really good that he’s made it to the next step,” said Jill Stephens. She had taken Nicanor from a raw yearling and, with the help of husband John and exercise rider Gabrielle DeJesus, turned him into a well-rounded prospect. She knew he would transfer to Matz’ barn with every opportunity to reach his full potential.

“Having completed this part of his course, he’s just as good as he could be,” Stephens said. “He’s a confident and happy horse. What he ends up having talent-wise remains to be seen, but all the preliminaries have gone very well and he has a good foundation.”

In Maryland, assistant trainer Peter Brette, who hadn’t seen the colt in a year, anticipated Nicanor’s arrival. The Blood-Horse was also there, as photographer Jim Coarse prepared for an early-morning stakeout at the training center. At 5:30 a.m. May 1, Nicanor arrived.

The colt looked tremendous as he came off the van. He had a nice walk around the shedrow and was soon situated in a box stall with a fine hay lunch. For the next few days, he would settle in with paddock turnout. In three or four days, he would walk to the track. Then the real training would begin.

“He’s a beautiful baby,” Brette said. “He’s grown and looks a lot stronger. He really has the same eye as Barbaro; it’s a very good, kind eye. Actually, the whole family has it; it comes from the mare.”

La Ville Rouge, who is boarded at Mill Ridge Farm near Lexington, has another full brother to Barbaro, a yearling. Barren for 2008, she is back in foal to Dynaformer. The expectations on her produce were heavy, but Brette and Stephens were both realistic regarding Nicanor’s potential.

“I’m very glad he’s with Michael and Peter, and especially glad he’s owned by the Jacksons,” Stephens said. “They haven’t put any pressure on the horse as far as expectations are concerned; they’re laid-back and low-key, and I know they’ll do the right thing by him.”

“Now he’s gonna have to prove himself,” said Brette. “Obviously, Barbaro was one in a million, maybe one in a lifetime.”

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