Trainer Jeff Bonde understands the disappointment the owners of Sway Away felt when they were left out of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
With graded earnings that fell just short of the top 20, Sway Away was the last horse excluded from the Derby. The subsequent scratch of Uncle Mo after entries were taken made it an even tougher pill to swallow.
With Twice the Appeal, who wound up finishing 10th, Bonde at least had the chance to saddle another horse in the race, so it was the owners of Sway Away that he felt worst for. Sway Away is owned by a group of investors, including Phil Lebherz, Batman Stable, Cindy Olsen, Glen Wallace, and Janet Sharp.
“The Derby is a people’s race. It’s about prestige, kind of like the Indianapolis 500. Everyone wants to be involved, trainers and owners, too,” Bonde said. “It’s sad because three of my owners are up there in age and this might have been their best chance. There will probably be another battle for Phil, but I felt bad for the others. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get in.”
Uncle Mo was questionable to make the Derby all week with an undiagnosed internal disorder, but owner Mike Repole and Todd Pletcher entered him in the hope he would recover in time for the race. He was scratched May 6, one day before the Derby. For his part, Bonde does not blame the connections of Uncle Mo for entering their horse.
“The rules are the rules," Bonde said. "They played by the rules. Maybe (Churchill Downs) will come up with an also-eligible list one of these days."
Bonde is hoping Sway Away’s inability to draw into the Derby will be a blessing in disguise for the May 21 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico Race Course. The son of Afleet Alexwill be rested and ready for his chance at the second leg of the Triple Crown. He will have his final Preakness work May 14 at Churchill Downs before shipping to Baltimore May 18.
Sway Away had a very sharp work at Churchill one week before the Derby, breezing six furlongs in 1:11 3/5.
“I didn’t see anyone work 1:11 that week. It was a strong work,” Bonde said.
Sway Away will enter the Preakness off a fourth-place finish in the April 16 Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park. With Pat Valenzuela aboard, he made a big move on the turn to take a narrow lead entering the stretch.
The bay colt flattened out in the final furlong, beaten 3 1/4 lengths by Archarcharch. In his previous start, Sway Away was sixth in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II), also at Oaklawn.
“A lot of people felt like the rider moved too soon on him (in the Arkansas Derby),” Bonde said. “I don't know. (Valenzuela) felt that the horse kind of beat himself. He is still kind of green; he looks around, and maybe that caught up with him.
“He’s still maturing. We were kind of playing catch-up with him all winter after we gave him some time off after Del Mar.”
In fact, after finishing second in the Aug. 8 Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar last summer, Sway Away did not return until making his 3-year-old debut in the Feb. 20 San Vicente Stakes (gr. II), in which he made a big late move to miss by a half-length to The Factor. In that race he was ridden by Garrett Gomez, who will be reunited with Sway Away in the Preakness.
Bonde is hoping Sway Away will make the same kind of move he made in the Arkansas Derby, only with better results.
“I think he’s a one-run kind of horse,” Bonde said. “I don’t want him to be too far back, but he has that big kick and wants to finish. The rider and him have to have the right timing.”