Trainer David Vance knows what it means to win a big horse race. He has teamed with Carl Pollard to campaign a handful of graded stakes winners over the years, including Caressing in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) and My Trusty Cat in the 2005 Humana Distaff (gr. I).
But the thought of capturing the Longines Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) under the Twin Spires with Pollard's homebred filly Kiss Moon made Vance's eyes brim with tears.
"It would mean a lot —being there and being home," said Vance, a native of Logansport, Ind., who now lives in Louisville. "I've won some big races, but it would be as big as any of them. The Breeders' Cup was the biggest race I ever run, but that was a few years back. We've had some decent races in between, but when you get this close, you hope like hell you can win. You hope you can get there. But if you don't, life will go on. We will be here Sunday morning either way."
Kiss Moon, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Malibu Moon seeking to defy her 30-1 morning line odds, spent the first half of the season at Oaklawn Park. She enters the Oaks off a close second behind Sugar Shock in the April 5 Fantasy Stakes (gr. III), and placed third behind the same filly in the Honeybee Stakes (gr. III) before that.
"We figured if we could be as good as third (in the Fantasy), we would take a chance on the Oaks, because it's our home track and its home for Mr. Pollard," said Vance, who is confined to a motorized wheel chair due to an injury from a 2007 car accident. "You don't get this kind of opportunity often."
Pollard, 75, the former board chairman of Churchill Downs Inc., has kept horses with Vance, 73, for more than 15 years. He currently has around a half-dozen in training with the Louisville-based conditioner.
Pollard became involved in the industry as a partner with the late prominent horseman Warner Jones, who founded Hermitage Farm near Goshen, Ky. Following Jones' death in 1994, Pollard bought Hermitage, and then re-sold it in 2010. He still operates his CFP Thoroughbreds breeding business on the property, however. Pollard's 16-member broodmare band includes Caressing and Kiss Moon's dam, Kiss the Devil, who delivered a Ghostzapper colt March 10.
Vance also trained Kiss the Devil, who captured the 2003 Early Times Mint Julep Handicap (gr. IIT) over the Churchill lawn.
"They remind me of each other quite a bit," said Vance of Kiss Moon and Kiss the Devil. "They're bigger, stronger, and they have similar ways of travel. (Kiss the Devil) was much harder to operate, though; she was real tough.
"(Kiss Moon) is pretty down-to-earth temperament-wise," Vance continued. "She couldn't have got to where she is now if I hadn't really pushed her. But she's been able to take it. She moves like a racehorse."
Vance can't predict whether Kiss Moon will deliver a victory for him on May 2, but he feels he has prepared her for the best possible result.
"She's big and strong enough," he said.