Trainer Ken McPeek has little doubt Noble's Promise is special.
So special, in fact, that McPeek is unwilling to jeopardize the promising but nicked up 3-year-old colt's health in an effort to win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
“He deserves a chance and if we get everything right, we're going to dance, and if we don't, we're going to wait for the Preakness,” McPeek said.
Noble's Promise took a major step toward the Derby April 20, turning in a solid five-furlong work. He covered the distance in :59 4/5 seconds while pulling away from training mate Beautician.
It was everything McPeek was looking for after his difficult trip in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), where he finished fifth, sustained cuts on both front legs and developed a minor lung infection. The quick workout, however, wasn't enough for McPeek to commit to running Noble's Promise under the Twin Spires on May 1. Not just yet.
“I said coming out of Arkansas we'd be 50-50. I think we're a little better than that, maybe 60-40, especially with the eye-catching work he put in,” McPeek said.
It was a hoop that Noble's Promise, currently second among 3-year-olds in graded-stakes earnings with $738,000, had to jump through to keep his Derby hopes alive. He'll have to do it again next week to head to the post on the first Saturday in May.
“The hope is he doesn't regress off the work he put in, but the way he worked, we think he's moving forward,” McPeek said.
Noble's Promise certainly looked healthy while pulling away from Beautician, a candidate for the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) April 30, as they made their way down the frontstretch. Jockey Willie Martinez hadn't intended for the horse to go that fast, it just sort of happened.
By the gallop out, Noble's Promise was a sixteenth of a mile ahead of the filly and McPeek had two problems on his hands: trying not to get too excited about Noble's Promise while trying to bolster Beautician's confidence.
“That's a grade I filly he was working against and he whipped her,” McPeek said.
It was the kind of performance McPeek has grown used to over the last year, when Noble's Promise became one of the most consistent talents in his class. He won the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) at Keeneland last fall, then followed it up with a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Santa Anita, before ending his 2-year-old campaign with a second-place finish behind Lookin At Lucky in the Cash Call Futurity (gr. I).
The two met again at the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) in March, with Lookin At Lucky edging him again by a head. While Lookin At Lucky headed to California, Noble's Promise stayed at Oaklawn and went off as the favorite in the Arkansas Derby.
It was a troubled trip from the start. He swung right from the third post out of the gate, his front legs getting clipped by Northern Giant in the process, and things didn't get much better from there. He finished fifth, 4 1/4 lengths behind Line of David.
The cuts turned out to be the least of the colt's problems. He came out of the race with a lung infection, a problem McPeek called “minor” but pesky and described more as an allergy than anything else. Antibiotics have helped, but McPeek said the horse’s lungs will have to be clear to put him in Derby, where the 20-horse field kicks up so much dirt that the track can resemble a dust storm in the back.
Then again, Noble's Promise isn't the first time McPeek has had a Derby contender struggle with lung problems. He made his Derby debut in 1995 with Tejano Run, whose issues didn't prevent him from finishing second.
Skipping the Derby would put a damper on one of the race's true underdog stories. Noble's Promise is owned by Chasing Dreams Racing 2008, a 24-person syndicate comprised of decidedly middle-class racing fans who paid $1,000 per share for their interest in the horse.
Marsha Springate, one of the owners, is a Louisville native and has been coming to the Derby for years. She has dreamed of making the walk from the backside to the paddock on Derby Day for years, and while it could happen May 1, there are other races down the road.
Still, when they were considering buying the horse as a weanling at Keeneland in the fall of 2008, Springate asked the horse if he was going to get them to the Derby.
“He nodded,” she said with a laugh.