"That's quite a lot to overcome for a horse with his style," Mullins said. "He could have been a lot closer, I think. That's just the way it goes."
Despite the winner's resolve, the number crunchers wasted no time pointing out that Came Home went the distance in 1:50.02, giving him the slowest Santa Anita Derby since Candy Spots failed to break 1:50 back in 1963. Others mentioned his final furlong, clocked in :13.32, was less than inspirational. After a spring of rumors and low expectations, the 'Home team simply overlooked the prattle.
"I heard the same old stuff when Alysheba won the Derby. He ran 2:03 and two, you know, one of the slowest times in a long time, blah, blah, blah," said McCarron. "All he did was go out and win six-and-a-half-million bucks by the time he was retired.
"The track wasn't as tight and as fast as we see on some Santa Anita Derby days," he added. "And it was the first time that he's been asked to go that far. You've got to figure he's going to get tired."
But the most significant digits exchanged in idle conversations afterward--at least among those who haven't yet ripped up their pedigree papers--were 10, the number of furlongs Came Home will face May 4 at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Of course, doubters were also quick to dismiss the bloodlines of one Free House, a humbly-bred son of the sprinter Smokester who carried McCaffery, Toffan, and Gonzalez through an unforgettable Triple Crown effort in 1997. An erratic sort whose antics nearly drove his trainer batty, Free House at least had the scope of a long-distance athlete. Even Gonzalez acknowledges that Came Home has the trademarks of a sprinter. It is his mind, however, that makes all the difference.
"I think he's a better horse than Free House," Gonzalez said. "This horse is all business. He does everything perfect. Since we started breezing him at Hollywood Park last year, he pretended to be an old horse. You teach him once and you don't have to teach him again."
This, obviously, portends well for Came Home's chances to wade through the mania of Derby week. McCarron, for one, believes the best may be yet to come.
"I think there is room for improvement," he said. "If all goes well between now and the first Saturday in May, I think that you can see a stronger horse on Derby day. I really do, especially because of the hands he's in. That guy is unbelievable."
Almost as unbelievable as Came Home's tortuous trail to the top. He was a standout the moment he hit the ground, and though a bit on the small side, his looks and breeding foretold a bright future. McCaffery and Toffan, who now co-own Came Home with William S. Farish and John Goodman, figured he'd be worth a king's ransom. On three different occasions, the dark bay went up for sale. Each time, he failed to meet his reserve. And from there, the tale took wing.
"I think things happen for a reason," McCaffery said. "We put a high enough reserve on this horse that we were going to keep him if he didn't bring what we thought he was worth. We just didn't want him to go.
"It killed me to sell him, but it was a business decision that we had to make," she went on. "You have to draw the line and say it's time to make some money in this business. It's retribution, I guess, or justice, because this horse was meant to come home to us. Somehow it was just meant to be." b
AT THE WIRE
Eleven years ago, Mane Minister was the first horse to take McCaffery, Toffan, and Gonzalez to the Kentucky Derby, and he became the only horse in history to finish third in each Triple Crown event. On Derby day, the Came Home crew got things rolling early when Bosque Redondo, a son of Mane Minister, fought off Mysterious Cat to win the $150,000 San Bernardino Handicap (gr. II) at nine furlongs. The homebred 5-year-old was a head clear at the finish in 1:49.11. McCarron was aboard, as he was later that afternoon when Nelson Bunker Hunt's Seinne caught Irish Prize late to take the $150,000 Arcadia Handicap (gr. IIT). Trained by Ron McAnally, the Chilean son of Hussonet scored by a half-length. The victory gave McCarron a unique distinction--he is the first rider in track history to win three graded stakes on a single card...The following day saw the return of Officer, and the Bertrando colt showed why he's still one of the more electrifying animals around, laying the smack down on a helpless bunch of Cal-breds in the 61?2-furlong Zany Tactics Stakes. This time the margin was six lengths. Bob Baffert trains for The Thoroughbred Corp. ...Bobby Frankel made his usual pit stop in the winner's circle after favored Rolly Polly nailed Penny Marie in the $108,500 Las Cienegas Handicap (gr. IIIT). The Irish-bred filly is owned by Wildenstein Stable.
By Craig Harzmann