Early on, the $8,500 colt was training to his price tag.
Tom McKenna's Judge Lanier Racing purchased enough horses during the Keeneland November sale that the big-bodied, bargain-priced Uncle Mo colt was overshadowed by the crowd.
Trainer Miguel Hernandez already picked out his favorite 2-year-old McKenna selected out of the sale, a chestnut Sidney's Candy colt named Oh So Regal. His price tag wasn't too high either, at $18,000, but he was outworking the bay colt, named Conquest Mo Money, every time they hit the track together in the morning at Sunland Park.
"I asked Miguel, 'What do you think of all the sale horses?'" McKenna said. "And he'd say, 'I like this one, I like that one, but this one (Conquest Mo Money)—he's lazy.'"
"He asked me, and I told him why I didn't like him," Hernandez added. "He had not shown me anything. Oh So Regal beat him every time."
Then the time came for both colts to have a first work out of the gate. Jockey Miguel Perez was aboard Oh So Regal and Alfredo Juarez Jr. was on Conquest Mo Money. One horse dusted the other by two lengths, but it wasn't what Hernandez was expecting.
"I asked Miguel, 'Why'd that horse beat you up? You're supposed to be the best,'" Hernandez remembered. "He just said, 'I couldn't keep up.'"
But Hernandez wasn't convinced. The next work out of the gate, he'd put on jockey Jorge Carreno, who would ride Conquest Mo Money once he made it to the races. Let's see what he says, Hernandez thought.
This time three other horses went into the gate with Conquest Mo Money, including his morning rival Oh So Regal.
If their first work out of the gate was a rout, this was a bludgeoning. In deep stretch of his six-furlong breeze, Conquest Mo Money put away the rest by 10 lengths.
"We didn't know what kind of horse he was going to be, but after that we knew we had a good horse," Carreno said.
"That was an 'oh my God' thing," Hernandez said. "I asked Jorge, 'Why did you open up so much?' He just did it on his own. It was strange to us. Out of the gate, he was totally different. I don't know why. I've been riding for many, many years and I can't figure out why."
McKenna says he knows why.
"He doesn't like to practice," the owner said. "He likes to run. Get him in the gate and he's going to run."
When he enters the gate May 20 at Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness Stakes (G1), just how well Conquest Mo Money can run will be put to its toughest test.
As strange as it may sound, Hernandez still needed convincing after the colt's morning displays of glory from the gate late in 2016. He couldn't square the difference between the lackadaisical day-to-day attitude from Conquest Mo Money, and the leaps and bounds the colt was making when he worked from the gate. But both Conquest Mo Money and Oh So Regal were ready to run, so it was time to find a race at their home track.
A six-furlong maiden special weight, which is how Hernandez likes to start out his young horses, didn't fill at Sunland Park. But a horseman's maxim nagged at him. When they're ready to run, you run.
"What am I going to do? I wanted to run six furlongs, because I never run horses at a mile first time out, but that race didn't go," the 51-year-old Hernandez said. "The next day, there's a mile race. I don't have a choice. I want to run."
So, although he didn't like it, he entered both in a mile maiden special weight Jan. 6.
The favorites in the race, both at odds of about 3-2, were Carlson and Spunwithpride, who were coming out of placings in 2-year-old races late in 2016. Conquest Mo Money went off at 5-1 and Oh So Royal was 12-1 on the tote.
Conquest Mo Money, after a good break from post 8, was carried wide in the first turn, between four and six paths off the rail. He settled nicely soon after, into a stalking trip in fifth as Oh So Regal raced inside in second and Carlson sped to an easy, seven-length lead.
Entering the final turn, Conquest Mo Money got the jump on his stablemate as they advanced on the runaway leader, but both Judge Lanier horses were under an all-out drive. The frontrunner tired in the stretch as the stablemates went by on each side—Conquest Mo Money on the outside and Oh So Regal on the rail—but unlike the recent morning works, Oh So Regal dug in and just missed by a head at the wire.
"I wasn't surprised the way he ran," Hernandez said of Conquest Mo Money's maiden win. "He was a nice horse. But after the next race—now I know I have a horse."
Both colts were again entered in the same race Jan. 29, but Oh So Regal didn't draw into the Riley Allison Stakes off the also-eligible list. It was probably a good thing, because Conquest Mo Money wasn't losing that day.
Again undervalued at 13-1, Conquest Mo Money broke well and got a clear target out of post 7. Ranger Rod sped to the front from the inside post, but it didn't last long. Conquest Mo Money simply pulled Carreno to the front on his own as they exited the first turn, but they were immediately challenged on the outside by favored Underwood and All Shacked Up. With some asking from Carreno, Conquest Mo Money shrugged off the outside pressure like a pro and shot through on the inside entering the final turn. As Carreno's whip came out turning for home, the margin was two lengths. It was three lengths with a furlong to run and ballooned to 11 at the wire under a Carreno hand ride late.
Oh So Regal, by the way, is still looking for his first win.
The offers began to flood in after the Riley Allison. They got as high as $600,000. Even in the desert of New Mexico, when a 3-year-old colt wins that well, dreams of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) spiral out of control.
But everyone wanted to know—and still wants to know—how could this horse go for $8,500 at the Keeneland November sale?
"You're asking the wrong person that question," McKenna said. "You should ask all the people who weren't bidding."
The colt from the Conquest Stables dispersal was picked out by McKenna himself, a lifelong horseman, who in his words has trained "every damn type of horse you could think of." He doesn't rely on others because he calls himself a "poor boy" who can't afford the advice.
"I claim my own horses. I buy my own horses," said the 81-year-old McKenna, who added that his horsemanship started when he worked his first horse from the gate at the age of 12 for his grandfather and horse owner C. M. Lanier (hence the stable name Judge Lanier Racing). "Believe me when I tell you it's not because I think I'm smarter or better. I'm just a poor boy and that's the way I get it done.
"I knew it was a hell of a buying opportunity. There's nothing like a good dispersal. I knew there would be some horses for my type of buyer—horses who slipped through the cracks."
But even McKenna admits he was willing to go to $45,000 to acquire Conquest Mo Money.
"To be very truthful—and I've been to a lot of sales—but I don't know why he only went for $8,500," he said. "I have no clue. It was God's gift."
Trainer Mark Casse has a pretty good idea why Conquest Mo Money's priced dipped so low at Keeneland November. There's a reason why the colt never raced for Casse and Conquest Stables despite his $180,000 yearling purchase price in 2015.
"He's a beautiful horse, but he had (issues with his) shins early on," Casse said. "If you watch him, he has a unique way of going. He's a big, stout horse, but he has a little bit of knee action and he hits the ground fairly hard. Early on, his ankles kept filling up on him. We call them 'baby ankles.' We would X-ray them and they were always fine. There wasn't anything there, so you just try to let them grow up.
"He was at Keeneland and then we moved him up to New York, because he's a New York-bred, and we breezed him and his ankles filled up again. At that point in time, once we heard about the dispersal, we just sent him to Lane's End to get ready for the sale."
Casse is a big believer in building equine confidence, so he viewed Conquest Mo Money's sale to New Mexico connections as a blessing. The colt established himself on the weaker circuit, by his estimation, and used that to move toward better performances.
Casse compared the experience to Catch a Glimpse, who ran fifth in her debut at Saratoga Race Course, but was sent to Woodbine to break her maiden. That started a roll of eight consecutive victories, including scores in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1T) and the 2016 Belmont Oaks (G1T), and three Soveriegn Awards topped by Canada's 2015 Horse of the Year honor.
"I've heard it many times—'Good horses show they're good horses from the beginning,'" Casse said. "That's not true. I've had a lot of good horses and I'm a firm believer in confidence. If you look at his numbers ... when he broke his maiden (he ran a slow speed figure). If you had taken that and run him in New York, maybe they would have destroyed him. Now he comes back in a stakes and he's starting to get confidence. So many times that happens to horses."
Casse openly admits he had so many Conquest horses that they often blur together, but it was the Feb. 26 Mine That Bird Derby that caused Conquest Mo Money to reappear on his radar.
The colt got a similar trip—forwardly placed just off stablemate Conquest Crown Me—but soon enough Conquest Mo Money took the lead on his own talent. A West Coast shipper by the name of Irap went off as the even-money choice, just ahead of 6-5 Conquest Mo Money, and was looming, less than a length back, in the final turn at Sunland.
The local horse seemed cooked as the Doug O'Neill-trained California invader came up on the outside, but Conquest Mo Money showed his grit, dug in on the inside, and put away Irap to win by two lengths.
"Now, of course, he's got my attention. But at the time, he had beaten Irap, and who knew about Irap?" Casse said of the colt who later became the first horse to break his maiden in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland.
Conquest Mo Money's next start in the Sunland Derby (G3), even though he suffered his first loss (second, 3 3/4 lengths behind fellow Preakness starter Hence), further encouraged Casse, so much so that he tried to get the colt back.
"They tested him in the Sunland Derby. He had a terrible post, a terrible trip into the first turn, and I'm a big Uncle Mo fan," Casse said. "I called up (brother and bloodstock agent) Justin (Casse) to see if we could buy that horse. I have no problem giving somebody a profit if they're doing something right, but they didn't want to sell. I knew that horse could run."
Casse found out just how much Conquest Mo Money could run in his next start. At the Oaklawn Park sixteenth pole April 15, it looked like Conquest Mo Money had the Arkansas Derby (G1) won.
Wide again in the first turn after a good break from post 11, Conquest Mo Money made his way to another contested pace contest, but these weren't New Mexico stakes horses. He raced just off Grandpa's Dream early and took command soon after under his own power—a trip he seems to hold a patent on at this point—but well-regarded, last-out Rebel Stakes (G2) winner Malagacy was just a length behind in the backstretch and put a nose in front of Conquest Mo Money in the final turn.
All it took was a quick ask from Carreno, however, and Conquest Mo Money retook the lead from his classy challenger as they turned for home. Still under pressure from Malagacy in the stretch, Conquest Mo Money again turned him away late, but the Casse-trained 2-year-old champion Classic Empire was steamrolling on the outside and just got by in the final strides to win by a half-length.
Conquest Mo Money had taken all the heat, done all the hard work on the front end with pressure throughout, and was only nipped at the wire by the defending 2-year-old champ.
"They're coming to the eighth pole and I'm thinkin', 'Holy Jiminy. Conquest Mo Money is going to beat Classic Empire,'" Casse remembered. "He ran a hell of a race. He was in the barn at Oaklawn with us and I said, 'Well, I see why I bought him.'"
Watching the celebration in the Judge Lanier section at Oaklawn after the Arkansas Derby, you'd have thought Conquest Mo Money won the race.
"We were jumping up and down. We didn't win, but for us, we won. It wasn't the money," McKenna said of the $200,000 second-place share of the purse. "It was because the horse performed the way he did."
If the offers to buy Conquest Mo Money were coming in hot before the Sunland Derby, the Arkansas Derby result caused an inferno. Hernandez said offers topped out at $1.5 million, with some buyers even willing to put up the extra $200,000 for the late supplemental nomination to the Kentucky Derby.
McKenna turned them all down, but it wasn't an easy decision.
"Hell yes, it was hard to turn down," McKenna said. "I'm 81. If I'd have been 60, I'd have taken those offers, because they were ridiculous offers. Some people have more money than sense.
"At my age, no. I've got one shot at this. Maybe I'll live long enough to get another one. I'm not in any hurry to get him to the breeding barn, and I'll let this one run as long as he likes it."
McKenna also had no interest in running in the Kentucky Derby. He thinks the 20 horses packed into the gate for a 1 1/4-mile run is dangerous and unnecessary.
"I'd never run a horse in the Derby," McKenna said. "You can do two things—you can either cut the number of horses and make it a safer race, or you can make these 3-year-old races 4-year-old races and let's get these horses some maturity, and then we'll have some longevity in these horses and not as many breaking down.
"The problem is, you have too many people in this industry only concerned about the breeding part. That's it. It's all about one classic, two classics, three classics and that's not horse racing. I want to see my horses run."
Hernandez admits he was initially disappointed McKenna opted to pass on the Kentucky Derby.
"Honestly, I wanted to go in the Kentucky Derby," the trainer said. "It's my dream, and I have the horse. But after talking to Mr. McKenna, I thought it was the right decision."
His entry into horse racing started when he worked as a mechanic's assistant in Mexico City as a teenager. The mechanic, a racing fan, always told Hernandez he had the perfect body type to be a jockey, and Hernandez finally gave in one day and took a trip to Mexico City's Hipódromo de las Américas, which had a jockeys' school adjacent to it. He enrolled.
"They teach you everything before you ride the horse—to be a groom, how to put on bandages, everything," Hernandez said. "You're learning before you ever get to riding. That went on for maybe two years or a year and I got to galloping horses, but after you leave the school, you're still working with the horses—you're in there feeling their legs and in the stalls, not just riding.
"I'd always ask the trainers, 'Why do you do this? Why do you do that?' I wasn't a jockey, and the next day I wanted to be a trainer. I thought about it for a long time."
Hernandez may have considered training, but his hand was forced in 2013. In the seventh race at Ruidoso Downs July 20 of that year, Hernandez's mount, Ghost Realms, clipped heels and threw the jockey to the dirt surface. Doctors later told him he had fractured a vertebrae in his spine and he would never be able to ride again—not even a pony.
Once a presence on the Northern California fair circuit, during nighttime racing at Los Alamitos Race Course, and most recently on the Arizona and New Mexico circuits, Hernandez won more than 2,000 races across all breeds in North America (1,846 in Thoroughbred races)—including a sextet of graded victories in Quarter Horse races. After the injury his riding career was abruptly over, but it didn't take long for an opportunity to come up.
"When I got into the accident, the next day (McKenna) called and said, 'If you can't ride, don't worry about it. You have a job with me,'" Hernandez said. "He didn't tell me I was going to be a trainer, but he called me almost every day to see how I was doing."
After recovery from his back injury, McKenna started Hernandez off with six horses. The top owner in New Mexico, McKenna showed confidence in Hernandez from the start, and in three full years of racing, the trainer has done well with that opportunity. Through May 17 Hernandez has 102 wins from 588 starts and purse earnings of more than $2.2 million.
"If not for Tom, I'm not winning a hundred races," Hernandez said.
Before the Sunland Derby, Hernandez expressed a desire—and a sense of pride—to run for all the horsemen associated with New Mexico racing (and to take down that big purse for the home team). That race continues to be ruled by out-of-state invaders who seek Kentucky Derby points and a piece of the inflated purse, but the trainer wanted to show a New Mexico-based horse could do it.
That didn't happen, but winning an American classic might just make up for it.
His owner doesn't need to win the Preakness, however, just like the Arkansas Derby. He'd love to win, but that's not what it's about.
That doesn't mean the Conquest Mo Money camp isn't confident. After breaking through during his morning workout sessions in New Mexico months ago, the colt has never run a poor race. If anything, he's shown more effort and heart when things don't entirely go his way.
"We want him to run his best," McKenna said. "I know he's going to try. He always has. I know he's not going to embarrass us."