Since the North American Thoroughbred industry has managed to survive maverick Barry Irwin’s Team Valor International winning the Run for the Roses, Irwin is back and hoping for an encore.
In his 25th year in the sport, Irwin reached the top of the charts in 2011 when Animal Kingdom , whom he also bred, won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) at 20-1. Now, the 69-year-old is looking for lightning to strike twice with Went the Day Well, whose path to Louisville this season hasn’t matched his moniker.
The outspoken Irwin, who tosses out opinions like loose change, has tweaked just about everyone in the business as one time or another. The former Turf writer and handicapper marches to his own beat, and that rhythm has been turning out sweet music over a significant time period. And there’s nothing like winning the biggest race in the world to gain credibility.
“I do things differently in my program than everybody else,” allowed Irwin. “In terms of breeding, where I find my horses, and where I race them, it’s different. People usually look at me and say, ‘What is this guy doing?’ After the Derby, some people took a closer look and perhaps thought I’m not such an idiot after all.”
Long convinced that this country’s horses are given far too much medication, Irwin turned his attention overseas in gathering bloodstock. Animal Kingdom is by a Brazilian-bred sire out of a German-bred mare. And although Went the Day Well has an American pedigree, Irwin found the horse in Great Britain.
“I saw his first start and he got pinched, fell back seven or eight lengths out of it, and came flying to just miss,” Irwin recalled of Went the Day Well's first effort. It was a ‘Whoa, what is that?’ moment. Then I looked at the pedigree and it reminded me of Martial Law (who pulled off a 50-1 upset in the 1989 Santa Anita Handicap, gr. I), a horse with an American dirt pedigree running on the turf in Europe. I figured if I could get him over here and he looks the part, we could have a nice horse.”
Irwin fell in love with the robust son of Proud Citizen but paid for that tugging of his heart strings, and syndicated the colt for $850,000, which is on the high end of Team Valor syndications. Ten partners are in on the Derby contender, including four that also own Animal Kingdom. Also, Mark Ford, from whom Irwin bought the horse, stayed in for 25%.
After Went the Day Well’s 3 ½-length domination of the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III), the syndication price doesn’t look quite as daunting.
The picture, though, didn’t appear quite as rosy earlier in the season. After purchasing the horse overseas, Irwin brought him to the U.S. only to have him come up positive in a disease test that the colt had passed in Europe. A re-test came back negative, but by then Went the Day Well had missed substantial training time.
“His muscles atrophied and he lost weight and condition because they don’t take them out of the stall in quarantine,” Irwin said. “So we were five weeks behind the eight ball when he got out and it cost us a race. We’ve been playing catch-up. The day has not gone well, except for the Spiral Stakes.”
After running third in a Feb. 9 maiden event at Gulfstream Park, Went the Day Well came back and won at the same track March 3. Three weeks later he ran in the Spiral.
“He really needed a race going into the Spiral," Iwin said. " I didn’t care about the distance or the surface or the fact Animal Kingdom won the race last year; he needed a race that day. We didn’t think he was in top shape and we didn’t know if we’d get the earnings to go to the Derby. We figured he might need two races. Turns out he was more ready than we figured and he won a little too big and ran faster than we anticipated. So with the earnings, we figured we’d train him up to the Derby.”
Owning a Kentucky Derby winner puts one in an exclusive club; winning two takes you straight to racing’s penthouse.
“I’m still trying to get over the first Derby win,” Irwin said nearly a year later. "To win two in a row? I suppose it’s feasible, but not likely. It stretches the level of credulity. It would be great, and I like the way the race is coming up. This Derby has the most speed of any in years, and my horse is going to come from off of it, so that part is getting me excited.”