When Joe Peacock Sr. sent Rose's Desert to trainer Todd Fincher for a stellar career that extended from 2010-13, Fincher barely heard from him, even as the New Mexico-bred swept 10 of 15 starts and never finished worse than second while earning $626,035.
Peacock Sr. turns 86 next Monday and has raced Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds for five decades. Understandably, he is more than a little excited these days. Runaway Ghost, a promising homebred, could make an old man's dream come true by winning the $800,000 Sunland Derby (G3) March 25 at Sunland Park and stamping his ticket to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1).
"To get to the Kentucky Derby would be a little bit reaching out for me," Peacock Sr. said. "If we ever got to there, it would be amazing."
The Sunland Derby is worth 85 qualifying points, according to the system established by Churchill Downs. The top four finishers earn points on a 50-20-10-5 basis. The Sunland Derby winner is virtually ensured a place in the May 5 Derby.
Runaway Ghost is the only horse racing for the Peacock family, which seeks its first graded stakes victory. He was offered at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale with a reserve of $250,000—and fell $10,000 short. Despite post-sale offers worth what was initially sought, Peacock Sr. went with his gut and retained the youngster.
"We just wanted to take him back, send him to a trainer we've known for years, and that's the way it went," he said.
Peacock Sr. has been hands-on with Runaway Ghost from the beginning. He made the decision to send Rose's Desert to 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, but never imagined the bay yearling that resulted would develop the way he has.
The Kentucky-bred broke his maiden at second asking, winning at five furlongs June 10 at Santa Anita Park. He owns victories in the six-furlong Golden Nugget Stakes Nov. 11 at Golden Gate Fields and in the one-mile Riley Allison Stakes in his 3-year-old debut Jan. 28 at Sunland Park. He placed second to Reride in the 1 1/16-mile Mine That Bird Derby Feb. 25 in his most recent start.
"We don't know how good he is yet," said Peacock Sr.'s son, Joe Peacock Jr. "He's done a lot of things right to this point, so we'll keep riding along with him and see where he takes us."
Matt Koch, co-owner of Shawhan Place with Teddy Kuster, said Runaway Ghost appeared to be "something special" not long after he was foaled at their Paris, Ky., farm.
"He wasn't always the tallest of horses, but he was a very strong, very powerful horse," Koch said. "He was the man out there."
Runaway Ghost is already a great reflection on Rose's Desert, a winner of seven stakes in New Mexico. After Ghostzapper, she was sent to two-time Horse of the Year Curlin and delivered a colt that was named Sheriff Brown, now a 2-year-old newcomer to Fincher's barn on behalf of the Peacock's.
Then it was back to Ghostzapper. That resulted in Our Iris Rose, a yearling filly the family intends to retain. Rose's Desert is set to deliver a Mineshaft colt in late April. Then a date is set with Bernardini .
"Sometimes you get these mares and everything with them is easy. That's this mare," Koch said. "She gets in foal easily, she has big, beautiful babies, she does an excellent job raising them. She's just all-class."
Rose's Desert won from six furlongs to one mile, but never competed beyond that distance. If Runaway Ghost is to win the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby, he will likely draw from the class and stamina of Ghostzapper, the 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (G1) victor.
Runaway Ghost showed he was not ready for prime time when he finished fifth in the Dec. 9 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (G1). The Mine That Bird Derby also raised concerns about his staying power beyond one mile.
"If you watched him run last time, you'd probably question that. I do, too," Fincher said. "We just need to get him to relax a little more in the first half of the race. He's a little headstrong."
Runaway Ghost will break from post 11 in a field of 12, with Tracy Hebert aboard. Despite pressing questions that must be answered, Fincher is every bit as excited as Peacock Sr., who continues to oversee Peacock Oil and Gas Properties in San Antonio.
"I've never had a horse of this ability before, and we've got a legitimate chance Sunday to punch a ticket (to the Derby)," said Fincher, 46.
Koch finds hope in Mine That Bird, who came in fourth in the Sunland Derby. He was vanned from New Mexico to Churchill Downs to pull one of the most shocking upsets in racing history at 50-1.
"It would be absolutely amazing to have a horse from here, for such great people, go into the starting gate on the first Saturday in May," Koch said. "It would be awesome."
And it would be an old man's dream come true.
Sunland Park, Sunday, March 25, 2018, Race 11
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1All Out Blitz (KY) Martin Garcia 122 Simon Callaghan 4/1 2 2Dark Vader (OH) Stewart Elliott 122 Peter Eurton 15/1 3 3New York Central (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 122 Steven M. Asmussen 9/2 4 4Hollywood Star (KY) Robby Albarado 122 Dale L. Romans 6/1 5 5Peace (KY) Drayden Van Dyke 122 Richard E. Mandella 12/1 6 6Shane Zain (KY) Terry J. Thompson 122 Doug F. O'Neill 15/1 7 7Prince Lucky (PA) John R. Velazquez 122 Todd A. Pletcher 6/1 8 8Seven Trumpets (KY) Luis Contreras 122 Dale L. Romans 6/1 9 9Choo Choo (KY) Mario Gutierrez 122 Jerry Hollendorfer 8/1 10 10Dream Baby Dream (KY) Alfredo J. Juarez, Jr. 122 Steven M. Asmussen 10/1 11 11Runaway Ghost (KY) Tracy J. Hebert 122 Todd W. Fincher 8/1 12 12Fortified Effort (AZ) Ry Eikleberry 122 Kevin Eikleberry 20/1
Sunland Park, Sunday, March 25, 2018, Race 11