When Craig Callis went shopping at Fasig-Tipton’s Kentucky fall yearling sale on a rainy Monday morning in 2003, the pedigree of one colt in particular jumped off the page. Out of the Black Tie Affair mare Diamonds and Pearls, the colt was by first-crop sire Catienus. Even on paper, he looked good.
Callis was supposed to be buying another horse for his father, Bill, but he decided to check on the intriguing one as well. Conformation didn’t disappoint, and before he knew it, he was bidding on the dark bay colt. When the hammer dropped at $2,300, Callis was the winning buyer. At the time, it was the most he’d ever paid for a yearling.
Now, sitting in the stakes barn at Turfway Park two days before the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. III), Callis still has a hard time believing that same colt actually brought him here.
“It’s quite a story,” he says. “We’re a small-time operation, and not only are we here, but we’re running against two of the top 3-year-olds in the country.”
Forget Street Sense and Hard Spun – or if you can’t forget them, add Cat Shaker to your trifecta when the field of five goes postward in the Classic Sept. 29. He’s finished second or third in each of his last five starts, the most recent being a second in the Sept. 1 Tri State Handicap at Ellis Park.
Today, he’s standing ankle-deep in bedding and knee-deep in a soothing pre-race poultice. Now a 5-year-old, he looks out of his stall with a deep, intelligent eye, accepting a proffered carrot and a pat on the nose with regal dignity. No wonder he caught Callis’ eye.
“Craig called me when he came back from the sales and said, ‘I got the horse in the barn,’” owner Bill Callis remembers. “He was back in the shadows and when he brought him out of the stall, I knew it wasn’t the horse I sent him there to get – but it was a pretty nice horse, just the same.”
Thirty-four starts and $166,072 later, Cat Shaker has proven to be more than “pretty nice,” and his recent streak of five in-the-money finishes has him at the best spot in his career thus far.
“From last November to January we gave him about 100 days off,” Craig Callis says. “He came back seventh in a race at Keeneland but since then he’s been real consistent. He’s sound, he’s happy, and he’s come back a lot better horse.”
They’d had been eyeing the Kentucky Cup Classic before grade I winners Street Sense and Hard Spun even entered the picture. When rumors began to circulate about the two classic contenders entering the race, they waited with great interest – but when Carl Nafzger and Larry Jones announced their decisions to run, Cat Shaker’s connections didn’t back down.
“These are the best 3-year-olds in the nation, so you’ve gotta say, ‘Oh, man!’ But anybody can be beat on any given day,” says Jim Hayer, Callis’ partner and co-trainer in the operation they’ve dubbed “C&H Racing.” Based at Victory Haven training center, they keep 20-25 head moving toward the racetrack.
“We thought about going to Hawthorne (in Illinois) or Maryland, but we decided to keep him close to home,” Callis says. “This track’s been good to him, and in a way it’s a smart move because it’s such a short field. We’ve got a real good 5-year-old. He’s seasoned, and he’s all business.”
“This is our dream,” Hayer says. “Even though the race came up like it did, it’s an honor to run against these kind of horses. (Cat Shaker) doesn't know how good they are, and we know what he can do. He won’t back down. He’s very competitive. He’ll focus on the horse ahead of him and he’ll run him down.”
The story gets better. If Cat Shaker runs well in the Classic, Callis wants to take him to the Breeders’ Cup.
When he says this, Callis smiles. He knows it won’t be easy to reach such a lofty objective. But then, the odds of getting this far aren’t that good, either. More than anything, he says, he’s been inspired by the colt’s class – the way he appears so calm on the racetrack, the way he muscles through his morning workouts, the way he’s behaved since day one.
“I knew there was something special about him the first time I turned him out in the field,” Callis says. “He went to running with this other yearling, and he just started going faster and faster. This other horse just stopped and watched him, and he kept going and going. I’d never seen a little horse that young just try to run as fast as he possibly could.
“Yeah,” Callis says. “I was like, man, this horse . . . he might be all right.”