There’s something special about defending your home turf against an army of formidable invaders, and Isn't He Clever and trainer Henry Dominguez will get that chance in the $800,000 Sunland Derby (gr. III) March 25.
Dominguez, who has won 43 races at Sunland Park this year, including the Borderland Derby with Isn’t He Clever, will try to turn back a two-prong challenge by Bob Baffert, as well as classy invaders trained by Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen. That’s not an easy task, but Dominguez is confident Isn’t He Clever will be up to the challenge.
“His workouts have been great,” Dominguez said. “After the Borderland Derby, we’ve been real pleased with his work. This horse is just maturing as time goes on.
“As long as you're in racing, anything is possible. You just want to make sure that you've got a sound horse. We've all learned a lot down here. Sunland is dirt and has become a springboard to get to the Kentucky Derby, and I think that it's starting to show that.”
In the past three years, the Sunland Derby has produced a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner (Mine That Bird), a Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner (Ruler on Ice), and a Preakness third-place finisher (Astrology ). And last year, the Sunland Park Oaks produced the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) winner (Plum Pretty).
Isn’t He Clever, a son of Smarty Jones , had the proverbial jaws dropping when he won the Riley Allison Futurity by 11 3/4 lengths in his Sunland debut in December, earning a 97 Beyer speed figure. He received a nasty jolt of reality when he ventured up to Santa Anita and was a distant fifth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) in his first two-turn race.
But he returned home to win the Borderland Derby over a classy colt in Zackn'mat, which set him up perfectly for the daunting task of taking on Baffert’s Castaway, winner of a division of the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) and recent maiden winner Stirred Up; the Asmussen-trained Daddy Nose Best, winner of the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III); and Pletcher’s promising maiden winner Ender Knievel.
What was encouraging about the Borderland Derby was Isn’t He Clever’s ability to rate off the pace and then quickly open up in the stretch.
“It’s hard to win on the lead all the time and he's such a versatile horse that you could just about do anything with him, and I think that's probably better for him,” Dominguez said. “We cut back his blinker a little bit. When he first started, he wasn't very aggressive at all, so we had to put blinkers on him to get him to focus more on what was going on. But as he's getting more experienced we can now cut back on that blinker so that he can see more that's going on around him.”
Dominguez is one of the many trainers who came up under D. Wayne Lukas; a list that includes Pletcher, Kiaran McLaughlin, Mike Maker, Dallas Stewart, Mark Hennig, and Randy Bradshaw.
“When I worked with Wayne Lukas, I was just a kid at the time and
“We worked hard and did the general things, like cleaning stalls; all the required things to get where you're at today. We learned from the ground up.
As for Isn’t He Clever, who will be ridden for the first time by Luis Contreras on Sunday, Dominguez said, “He doesn't get excited about anything and does whatever you want him to do. If he were human and going to school he'd be a great student. He's not unruly and always behaves.”
Dominguez said if Isn’t He Clever, owned by J. Kirk and Judy Robison, runs a good second or third and still needs earnings to get into the Kentucky Derby, he could run him back in the April 14 Arkansas Derby (gr. I). The gelding isn’t nominated to the Triple Crown and his owners would have to pay the $6,000 supplementary the day before the Sunland Derby.