As long as Sunland Park has been running the Sunland Derby (G3), big-time, out-of-town trainers have swooped in to try to scoop up the lucrative purse.
In the first Sunland Derby—then called the WinStar Derby—in 2003, it was trainer Doug O'Neill who shipped in with Excessivepleasure to win the $270,000 share of the $500,000 purse.
O'Neill won the race again in 2005 with Thor's Echo, and other shippers have followed. Bob Baffert has won the race three times (Wanna Runner in 2006, Govenor Charlie in 2013, and Chitu in 2014)—not including last year's win with Collected in the renamed Festival of Racing Stakes, which carried a smaller purse and did not offer Road to the Kentucky Derby points. The Sunland Derby had been cancelled because of an equine herpesvirus outbreak.
Other invading trainers to win include Simon Callaghan, Steve Asmussen, Jeff Bonde, Shannon Ritter, Mike Machowsky, and Tom Amoss.
A locally based horse has won only twice in 13 runnings—Hi Teck Man for trainer Johnnie Nall in 2004 and Song of Navarone for Henry Dominguez in 2007.
So it is no surprise that this year's edition of the New Mexico feature March 26, now with an $800,000 purse, has drawn out-of-town challengers from seemingly every direction.
From the West Coast comes the familiar names of O'Neill (Irap) and Baffert (Bronze Age), along with the Eric Kruljac-trained Kimbear. From the East comes a procession of top trainers—Todd Pletcher (Hedge Fund), Amoss (Shareholder Value), Ken McPeek (Oxford Lane), D. Wayne Lukas (Dilettante), Asmussen (Hence and Total Tap), and Chris Hartman (Balandeen) are all represented
Judge Lanier Racing's Conquest Mo Money, trained by former jockey Miguel Hernandez, won his first three races—all at Sunland. He was purchased for $8,500 from the Conquest Stables dispersal at the 2016 Keeneland November sale.
The New York-bred son of Uncle Mo broke his maiden by a neck in his debut going a mile in January, took the Riley Allison Stakes just more than three weeks later by 11 lengths, and then scored in the local Sunland Derby prep—the Mine That Bird Derby—by two lengths, ahead of grade 1-placed runner-up Irap.
The local pride of taking Sunland's biggest purse of the yea, so often raided by outsiders, should not be downplayed.
"This is like a dream for everybody," said the 51-year-old Hernandez, who has 100 wins as a trainer since 2014. A spill at Ruidoso Downs resulted in a back injury that ended his riding career in 2013. "I'm telling you, if I win that race, I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm confident, but if he crosses that wire first—everyone (here) is going to be rooting for us."
Hernandez may be confident now, but he wasn't when Conquest Mo Money arrived at his barn from Keeneland.
"Honestly, at the beginning he didn't show anything," Hernandez said. "But after he worked a half-mile, he was a different horse. Then when we worked him from the gate—wow."
Hernandez knew he had something more watching that gate work, this time going six furlongs and in company. Conquest Mo Money didn't just outwork his stablemate—he crushed the other horse. The colt finished five lengths ahead at the wire.
"That's when I thought, 'I have a nice horse,' and if he can do that going three-quarters he should like going long," Hernandez said.
But as impressive as Conquest Mo Money has been, the looming invaders present undoubtedly his toughest test yet. None are proven graded stakes winners, but several are highly regarded for their notable connections.
Juddmonte Farms' Bronze Age—a $600,000 purchase at Fasig-Tipton's select 2-year-olds in training sale in 2016—struggled in his first two starts going one turn at Santa Anita Park, but stretched out nicely to win at a mile to break his maiden Feb. 18 in Southern California.
WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing's Hedge Fund had a similar experience at Gulfstream Park, where he finished off the board in his debut sprinting in December, then came back to break his maiden at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 4 in South Florida by four lengths.
Others are coming in with graded experience. Irap, although still a maiden, has run second in all three of his stakes tries—including the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) and Robert B. Lewis (G3); Shareholder Value has finished sixth and fifth, respectively, in the Risen Star (G2) and Lecomte (G3) at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots; Dilettante (fifth) and Hence (seventh) both exit the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park; and Balandeen came in fifth in last year's Delta Downs Jackpot (G3).
"If we qualify for the Kentucky Derby, it's 20 horses. I'm not afraid of 12 horses," Hernandez said. "I like that it's (tough) competition. That way I can see how good my horse is.
"If I run second or third, I'll still feel happy, because the company that's coming are all good horses. But this time it's going to stay here, I hope."
Sunland Park, Sunday, March 26, 2017, Race 9
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Shareholder Value (KY) Javier Castellano 122 Thomas M. Amoss 6/1 2 2Hedge Fund (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 122 Todd A. Pletcher 6/1 3 3Bronze Age (KY) Martin Garcia 122 Bob Baffert 3/1 4 4Oxford Lane (KY) Richard E. Eramia 122 Kenneth G. McPeek 15/1 5 5Irap (KY) Mario Gutierrez 122 Doug F. O'Neill 6/1 6 6Dilettante (FL) Gary L. Stevens 122 D. Wayne Lukas 12/1 7 7Kimbear (KY) Joseph Talamo 122 J. Eric Kruljac 15/1 8 8Wine N Divine (KY) Miguel A. Perez 122 Greg Green 30/1 9 9Hence (KY) Alfredo J. Juarez, Jr. 122 Steven M. Asmussen 12/1 10 10Balandeen (KY) Channing Hill 122 Chris A. Hartman 10/1 11 11Total Tap (KY) Florent Geroux 122 Steven M. Asmussen 10/1 12 12Conquest Mo Money (NY) Jorge Carreno 122 Miguel L. Hernandez 9/2
Sunland Park, Sunday, March 26, 2017, Race 9