By Kelsey Riley
Trainer Alexis Barba is looking at lucky, in more ways than one.
It started last fall when Barba’s promising 2-year-old Make Music for Me , owned by Ellen and Peter Johnson, strung together a series of placings behind juvenile champion Lookin At Lucky . After running second to that colt in the Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) and the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I), Make Music for Me finished third behind Lookin At Lucky and Noble’s Promise in the Cash Call Futurity (gr. I).
The saga continued April 27 when, after the defection of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) contenders Endorsement and Interactif, Make Music for Me drew into the historic race just hours before entries closed for the $2 million classic. Until both colts were withdrawn from consideration around 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, Make Music for Me was sitting at number 22 on the graded earnings list and, until a stroke of luck came along, his chances of Run for the Roses looked bleak.
Now, Make Music for Me will take a fourth shot at Lookin At Lucky, an opportunity that Barba is eagerly awaiting.
"He was always closing on (Lookin At Lucky)," said Barba, who also trains one-time 2010 Kentucky Derby contender Alphie’s Bet. "He’s never been beaten more than a length-and-a-quarter by Lookin At Lucky, and Noble’s Promise was in that (Cash Call) Futurity. He was always finishing, so that’s a good spot to be in."
Barba brought her colt to this spot with patience and a carefully plotted campaign. After a winless 2-year-old season in which he was multiple graded-placed, Barba opted to give him a break. Laying off the son of Bernstein out of Miss Cheers, by Carson City until March, Barba opted to start him back in the ungraded Pasadena Stakes on the Santa Anita turf rather than rushing him into a graded stakes for more Derby earnings. Her plan was to put her 3-year-old in a confidence-building spot, and her patience was rewarded when Make Music for Me earned his first win.
"We just gave him a little break, because we could," Barba said. "I said, ‘we’ve got options with this horse, he’s earned a lot of money, we don’t have to hammer on him.’ And that’s why we chose that race, and it worked out well.
"We felt comfortable with the money he had earned, maybe too comfortable. I didn’t choose to go back into a graded race, and I went into the Pasadena Stakes, which is the only race he’s ever won. So the money earned was a little different than what we needed for the Derby, but we didn’t know everyone was going to jump up so quickly in earnings."
With the Pasadena win under their belt, Barba judged it was again time to try graded company. The place would be Keeneland, where Make Music for Me would attempt to avenge a fourth place finish in the 2009 Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I). The race would be the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
As luck would have it, Make Music for Me did not take to Keeneland Polytrack surface, checking in sixth behind Stately Victor.
"It’s played out really well until the Toyota Blue Grass, which he didn’t like the Keeneland racetrack," Barba said.
Sitting on the Derby bubble after Make Music for Me’s uninspiring Bluegrass performance, Barba continued to train her colt with an eye to the big dance. In preparing the horse, Barba drew on her 20 years of experience working for trainer Eddie Gregson, who won the 1982 Kentucky Derby with Gato Del Sol. Barba galloped horses for Gregson and later became his assistant trainer, taking over his stable when he died 10 years ago.
Barba noted that working for Gregson provided her with a few Derby experiences, but this will be her first time attending the race.
"I have many, many Kentucky Derby stories," Barba said. "We ran a few horses in the Derby in the years that I worked for (Gregson). I just never got to come. Now I’m here."
Barba said the greatest lesson she learned from Gregson was to "just let it happen, not trying to make it happen."
Now, Barba will make her first trip to the Kentucky Derby living by the advice of her former boss. Barba said that upon hearing they had drawn in, the feeling was surreal.
"I think I stood in the shed for a while and just kind of sang," Barba laughed. "It’s something to take in."
With a little luck, Barba and Make Music for Me could be singing again come Saturday.