Ky. Derby Trail: Simple Twists of Fate

Ky. Derby Trail: Simple Twists of Fate
Photo: Benoit
The gray colts Take the Points (left) and The Pamplemousse enter the stretch in the Sham Stakes.
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Lost in the overwhelming spectacle of the Kentucky Derby and the arduous road leading to Churchill Downs are the little-known ironies and twists of fate that get played out behind the scenes.

 

There was an old TV series, based on a movie of the same name, called “Naked City,” which offered a gritty look at life in New York City. At the end of each show a narrator would say: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” There aren’t quite as many in the Kentucky Derby, but here are two from this year’s storylines.

 

The first and last sessions of the Keeneland September yearling sale are separated by about 15 days, which translates to light years in terms of dollars and expectations. Somewhere in between lies the proverbial railroad tracks that divides the classes. On one side are the elite, the upper crust, the major players, the big spenders, who happily shell out millions of dollars for untested babies. On the other side are the bargain hunters, some looking for that elusive diamond in the rough and most merely looking for cheap horseflesh to help sustain them in their struggle to survive in the lower levels of the industry.

 

But on a rare occasion the two worlds meet, and it is then that the opportunity presents itself for so-called fairy tales to be written.

 

Selling as Hip No. 34 in session one on Sept. 10 was a beautifully made son of Unbridled's Song, who was purchased by Tom McGreevy, acting as agent for Rick Porter, for $800,000. The average price for that session was $394,000. The colt, named Old Fashioned  , won his first four career starts, including two graded stakes, and became the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

 

Each day following the first two sessions, the quality of horseflesh and pedigrees lessen, as does the sales averages. But the sale forges on. Averages decline from six figures to five figures to four figures. Hundreds of yearlings sold turn into thousands. Days turn into weeks. By the time the final session in 2007 was held on Sept. 25, more than 5,000 horses had already been through the ring. The private jets and limos were long gone. Only a smattering of buyers remained, looking for whatever bargain basement merchandise they could find.

 

Selling as Hip No. 5241on that final day was a gray son of Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos  , out of a stakes-winning mare and earner of almost $300,000. The colt’s broodmare sire, Carson City, also was the broodmare sire of Derby winner Barbaro.

 

In the pavilion was Midwest trainer McLean Robertson, who had taken a liking to the colt. Robertson was buying horses for Jerry and Marlene Myers, who race under the name of Jer-Mar Stable and have had good success, sending out a number of stakes winners over the years. Robertson had been associated with the Myers since he was 14, working for his father, who trained for them for years.

 

“They’re the only owners I’ve got who give me horses, watch them fail, and then give me a bunch more,” Robertson said.

 

Although the colt did not have a very good walk behind, he was attractive and well made, and Robertson was looking to get away from the sprinter-types who win a race or two right away and then disappear into obscurity. He was hoping the colt would slip through the cracks and he could get him for about $3,000. After all, the horses who sold directly before and after him went for $1,200, $2,000, $3,000, and $4,000. Unlike the average of almost $400,000 in the first session, the average for the last session was only $9,000.

 

It didn’t take Robertson long to realize he wasn’t even going to come close to getting the colt for $3,000, as the bidding shot right on by that figure. According to Robertson, the Myers’ really weren’t that interested in the colt, but Marlene loved grays, and when Robertson found a gray that he liked he told her and Jerry to at least come back to the barn and look at him. They went back and looked at the colt and said, “What the hell, what’s one more horse?”

 

Robertson finally got him for $25,000. Of course, everyone knows the rest of the story…to this point at least. Win Willy, the gray horse who sold at the last session of the sale winds up beating the gray horse who sold at the first session, handing him his first career defeat, while paying $115.60. As often happens in racing, the pauper had beaten the prince. It will be interesting to see how the rest of this story plays out in the next couple of months.

 

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Jack Wolf of Starlight Partners and bloodstock agent Barry Berkelhammer have had great success picking out yearlings at the sale. For the amount of money they spend, their success rate when it comes to finding graded stakes horses is extraordinary. But like everything, there are also the failures, which one uses as learning experiences. When you continue to have bad luck going down the same avenue, it is understandable why you wouldn’t want to keep going back.

 

In 2005, Wolf and Berkelhammer bought a Dixie Union filly, out of Comfort Zone, for $360,000 and named her Come Together. After she broke her maiden at Churchill Downs in her second career start, Wolf and trainer Todd Pletcher had to decide which filly to send up to New York, Come Together or another highly regarded 2-year-old filly purchase named Octave. While Octave went up north and eventually became one of the best fillies in the country, Come Together came down with sinus and other problems and they just couldn’t keep her together. She wound up winning only one more race in 10 starts before being retired. She was put in the Keeneland January mixed sale two years later and brought $105,000. Wolf came close to buying her back, but felt that was a fair price at the time.

 

The following year, they were at the sale again, and wound up buying another yearling out of Comfort Zone, this one a colt by Forest Camp, who went for $250,000. Unfortunately, he never got to the races and died the following year.

 

In 2007, they were at the Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale, and sure enough, consigned to the sale was yet another offspring out of Comfort Zone, this one a strapping colt by Kafwain  . According to Wolf, the breeder and consigner, Fred Mitchell, was all over them to buy the horse, and they did vet him and had him on their short list, and were all prepared to bid on him. As the colt was ready to enter the ring, however, Wolf and Berkelhammer both had the same thought: “Could we possibly buy another yearling out of Comfort Zone?” They both liked the colt, but they were 0-for-2 with Comfort Zone’s yearlings. They turned to each other and simultaneously answered, “No.”

 

Earlier in the same sale, Wolf and Berkelhammer had bought an Even the Score   yearling colt for $160,000, whom Starlight named Take the Points. Comfort Zone’s colt wound up selling for $80,000 and then was pinhoooked the following year for $150,000. He was named The Pamplemousse.

 

Fast forward to 2009. Take the Points is sent to Santa Anita for the grade III Sham Stakes, his first start on a synthetic surface, after winning an allowance race at Gulfstream. Who does he run into, but The Pamplemousse  , who drills him by six lengths. Wolf, who admits he’s haunted by the horse he decided at the minute not to buy, now has a decision to make. Does he keep Take the Points in California and face The Pamplemousse again in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) or head back east for one of the other grade I preps? If he remains in California, needing to finish first or second in order get enough earnings to make it into the Kentucky Derby field, it is conceivable that The Pamplemousse will wind up being the horse that keeps Wolf and Starlight out of the Kentucky Derby.

 

“I’ve run into (Fred Mitchell) several times since the sale, and he doesn’t rub it in or anything, but he shakes his head, just as I do every time I see this horse,” Wolf said. “I go to bed thinking about him and I wake up thinking about him. I had to go through it in the Sham and I may have to go through it in another two weeks. But I’d really love to beat that horse to get into the Kentucky Derby. You can't make this stuff up.”

 

No, you can’t. As they say, there are “eight million” stories in the Kentucky Derby. This has been two of them.

 

Like taking Candy from a baby

 

So, which horse in Pool 2 has the best chance to be the overlay of the Future Wager? Sure, you can look at the 40-1 and 50-1 shots and make a case for them. But for pure accomplishment, the best bet could very well wind up being the much-maligned Chocolate Candy, who closed at 29-1, compared to The Pamplemousse at 9-1 and Pioneerof the Nile at 12-1.

 

Before you chuckle, snicker, or even burst out laughing, check out the facts.

 

* Pedigree-wise, he is a homebred. Remember them? In today’s mass market madness, it is rare and refreshing to see a homebred, knowing he’s had the right kind of upbringing and foundation.

 

* He is a much-desired RF (Rasmussen Factor), meaning he is inbred to a top-class broodmare, in his case Alanesian, dam of Boldnesian and Princessnesian, who beat the colts in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

 

 * His sire, broodmare sire, maternal great-grandsire, and paternal great-grandsire were all grade I winners at 1 1/4 miles on dirt.

 

* His second dam is a half-sister to Triple Crown winner Affirmed, by Alydar, and his broodmare sire is Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. This pedigree certainly isn’t lacking for classy dirt influences.

 

* He’s won four of his last five starts, all around two turns, and he was only one of two 3-year-olds in training who had won a 1 1/8-mile stakes this year before Saturday’s Lane’s End Stakes.

 

* He was beaten only 1 1/4 lengths by Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge   in the grade I CashCall Futurity, closing fastest of all.

 

* He’s won at Golden Gate, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park, and was second at Del Mar, and has been ridden to victory by three different jockeys and was third in the CashCall Futurity with a fourth.

 

* Yes, his high Beyer number is only a 90, but I Want Revenge’s high Beyer was a 92 before he went to the dirt and skyrocketed to a 113. Beyers are always much lower in California. What is important is that his Beyers have increased in each of his last five starts, and he, too, could break out on the dirt.

 

* Yes, he beat Massone in the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III), but he went to the front way too soon, much like Pioneerof the Nile in the San Felipe, and Massone had already finished second to I Want Revenge, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths.

 

* In the El Camino Real, he went to the front in a blistering :23 third quarter and still was able to run his next quarter in :24. When you can run a :47 flat half in the body of a race, you’re not lacking for speed. The fractions of the race were almost identical to the fractions of an overnight stakes for older horses earlier in the card won by multiple graded stakes winner El Gato Malo.

 

* After having seven starts in seven months, he’s had a seven-week layoff, during which he’s worked five furlongs  in :59 4/5, six furlongs in 1:12 3/5, seven furlongs in 1:25 4/5, and a mile over a deep, dead track in 1:41 1/5. He’s been freshened, he’s fit, he has a good deal of room for improvement, he’s always closing, and he wants more distance…and at 29-1 he could prove to be one heck of an overlay…assuming, of course, he handles the dirt.

 

No holding him back

 

So, here we go again. With Hold Me Back   popping up after a four-month layoff and blowing by everyone to win the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II), we have the same old question to ponder. Is this son of Giant's Causeway   strictly a synthetic surface specialist -- or should we say Polytrack specialist -- or is he simply a good horse who will handle dirt equally as well? He certainly didn’t in his only try on dirt, getting beat 14 lengths in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II).

 

Was that race an aberration? No one knows the answer, so we just have to get him through the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) and deal with it at Churchill Downs. But he will be a total guess no matter how he does at Keeneland. Although his past performances point to him being a synthetic specialist, there is something about the way he moves and his overall appearance that suggests he just may be a very good horse, period, and the Remsen was a throw-out, attributable to 2-year-old growing pains or perhaps a dislike for Aqueduct, which can get kind of quirky at times. Remember, they went the first three-quarters in 1:14 in the Remsen last year.

 

This actually may be a clever ploy by trainer Bill Mott on the 25th anniversary of his first Kentucky Derby starter. When you’re a Hall of Fame trainer and have saddled only five horses in the Derby in 30 years, never having finished better than eighth, and you’ve had one of this year’s favorites taken away from you, you try different tactics. So, this year, Mott decided to sneak up on everyone at the last minute when they weren’t looking and catch them by surprise. No Derby dreaming for seven months like with Court Vision   last year. Just pop in unexpectedly, throw a saddle on a couple of times, and before you know it it’s Derby Day. So, welcome back to the Derby trail, Mr. Mott. The stars may very well be aligned in your favor this time.

 

Visually, Hold Me Back did everything like a good horse in the Lane’s End. He’s built like a stayer, he’s a strikingly handsome individual, and is as beautiful a mover as we’ve seen this year, with a long, flowing stride. And Mott wouldn’t have put him in the Remsen in only his third career start or in the Lane’s End first time out this year if he didn’t think he was a talented horse. You have to think training over that deep Payson Park (dirt) track, including two bullet works in March, helped get him fit enough for what he accomplished on Saturday. For him to win this race the way he did in his first start of the year was a big achievement, so put him on the back burner and wait to see how trains at Churchill Downs. But even that is no guarantee he’ll be effective in the Derby. Not even Mott has a clue how he’ll handle dirt again, despite working well over it all winter.

 

All we can go by right now is overall impression. He made a good one when first seen in the paddock before the Remsen, and he made a better one on Saturday. And keep in mind, he did come home his final five furlongs in a swift :59 2/5 (:23 2/5, :24 and :12) and final three-eighths in :36 flat . That is running on any surface. But if this race had been on dirt, we’re talking a whole different story. Analyzing and handicapping Derby horses is tough enough, but to add so much guess work makes it all the more difficult. For now, we’re going to consider him a legitimate Derby contender. He will be in the Top 12 next week.

 

To add yet another little twist of fate and irony, for anyone who witnessed the epic 2000 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), how about if Mr. Hot Stuff passes his test in the Santa Anita Derby and WinStar Farm is represented in the Kentucky Derby by sons of Tiznow   and Giant’s Causeway?

 

Flying Private was our longshot special in the Lane’s End and the son of Fusaichi Pegasus ran a big race to finish a clear second at 24-1, coming off a troubled trip in the six-furlong Mountain Valley Stakes at Oaklawn. This colt is close to getting D. Wayne Lukas back to the Derby, and Lukas is always a welcome sight at the Downs. Imagine a 9-1 shot and a 24-1 shot in the Lane’s End getting Hall of Famers Lukas and Mott to the Kentucky Derby.

 

If anyone still thinks all synthetic surfaces are alike, especially Polytrack and Pro-Ride, just take another look at Bittel Road as he plodded his way to a dismal 10th-place finish at 2-1 after being competitive with the best 3-year-olds in California. Pro-Ride is closer to turf, with very little kick-back, while horses get as much spray in their face from Turfway’s Polytrack as a fisherman in rough seas. The slight favorite, West Side Bernie, had no apparent excuse, finishing a non-threatening sixth.

 

In the Rushaway Stakes, Cliffy's Future, who had looked like a live longshot in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III), only to flop badly, rebounded with a big effort to win going away by 2 1/2 lengths for Silverton Farm and trainer Darrin Miller, the connections that brought you the 2007 Rushaway and Blue Grass winner Dominican. He’ll also go next in the Blue Grass Stakes.

 

Raz Mafaaz

 

The good news with Mafaaz winning the inaugural Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton is that we get a classy operation along with him in Shadwell Stable and John Gosden, who are smart enough to give the colt a shot in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) before throwing him to the wolves in the Kentucky Derby off only one start this year and three lifetime starts. His breeding is all grass, so we won’t have any idea how he’ll handle the dirt on May 2, but at least he’ll be tested for class at Keeneland. And how about Gosden saying if the colt does run in the Derby he’ll be there instead of at Newmarket for the 2,000 Guineas? Now that’s commitment. And Richard Hills will come for the ride.

 

The negative aspect of the result is that Mafaaz was fourth two jumps past the wire and the final time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:55, which may be meaningless not knowing how slow that track is. The runner-up, Spring of Fame, a U.S.-bred with a dirt pedigree, closed like the proverbial freight train from far back after being switched to the outside to fall inches short, making up about eight lengths in the final furlong. If this race were 1 1/8 miles and 20 yards, he wins by daylight. But in the winner’s defense, he made a strong early move to reach contention and then had to work to wear down the tenacious, front-running Sohcahtoa, while making his first start beyond seven furlongs and first time with blinkers.

 

While the “Win and you’re in” concept has been received favorably in England, let’s ask these simple questions of Churchill Downs: Why this sudden urge to have a European horse, especially a non-stakes caliber horse, in the Kentucky Derby, at the expense of an American horse? What is the purpose of giving the Derby an international flavor by throwing in a token European horse that has accomplished nothing in stakes company? Is this some sort of sporting gesture that popped out of left field or simply a way to generate more betting interest in England? If the latter, you can be sure whatever interest is generated will be minimal, until better quality horses participate.

 

It’s too early to tell if this concept is going to work or not. As a big fan of European racing, I’m all for anything that makes the sport more international, and it could add new interest in the Derby, although not to the extent Churchill Downs thinks it will, at least not in the beginning. Let’s not forget that if the winner of the Challenge headed straight to the Derby, as some surely will in the future, he’d be thrown into an unfamiliar world, with different starting gates, different loading procedures, a totally different pace scenario, and a surface he’s never run on. This isn’t the Breeders’ Cup, where you have seasoned group I horses coming over here. We’re talking about young, mostly inexperienced 3-year-olds, most of them of questionable ability.

 

Just go back and watch all three of Aiden O’Brien’s 2-year-olds in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile literally walk out of the gate five lengths behind the rest of the field. Watch the English-trained Dr. Greenfield throw a fit behind the gate before the 2001 Belmont Stakes, delaying the start for what seemed an eternity. It is imperative that these horses arrive in Kentucky well before the Derby and receive extensive gate schooling. We’re just fortunate that the winner of this year’s Challenge has classy connections who are going to do the right thing by their horse and by the Derby, and earn their way into the race. Anyway, I just wrote five long paragraphs on the race, so it must be working.

Comment on this Column on Steve Haskin's Blog: Hangin' With Haskin.

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