Jersey Boys Seek Respect for Black Onyx
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt

New Jersey-based trainer Kelly Breen and jockey "Jersey" Joe Bravo watched intently as Black Onyx circled his way around the lawn behind Barn 40 at Churchill Downs April 30. The near-black colt stopped to tear at a chunk of bluegrass, then continued to walk, cooling out from his morning gallop.

"He's sharp; he looks great," said Breen. "To come here and see him at Churchill Downs and see him filled out...I was really pleased with the way he looks."

He'll have to maintain his good looks and run even better May 4. Sterling Racing's son of Rock Hard TenKalahari Cat, by Cape Town, will be one of the longer prices on the toteboard in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). He comes into the Run for the Roses off a six-week layoff and his last two starts have not been over a conventional dirt surface.

Black Onyx, whom owner Sam Herzberg paid $125,000 for at the 2011 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, broke his maiden second time out in an off-the-turf one-mile race at Aqueduct Racetrack. Shipped to South Florida for his seasonal debut, Black Onyx ran fourth, beaten 19 lengths in a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claimer at Gulfstream Park on New Year's Day.

Put on the turf for the first time, Black Onyx drew clear in a two-turn allowance/optional claiming race Feb. 23 at Gulfstream Park. Shipped to Turfway Park, he pulled off a 15-1 stunner by 1 1/2 lengths in the nine-furlong Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes (gr. III) over Polytrack.

Breen is the first to admit his runner won't be among the favorites on Derby Day, but he's more than okay with it. Breen, of course, is a classic-winning trainer having won the 2011 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with 24-1 shot Ruler On Ice.

"I think we're the question mark in the field," he said. "I know people would say we're the dark horse, but in his last two races he's gotten better and better although I know they were on the turf and on the Polytrack. As for handicapping, I'd have to put a big question mark on him. Does he fit? Is he fast enough? What is he going to do on the dirt?"

Based on how the horse has settled in and has flourished in his new surroundings, Black Onyx might be a live longshot.

"You worry sometimes about how the horses do ship and if they even miss a little feed for a couple of days," Breen said. "You may not see it right away, but the residual factor a week later you may see it and say 'Remember those days that he didn't finish his food?' Or right after a race, 'he's been in the feed tub the whole time and looks good.' It shows.

"We're definitely running under the radar, but I couldn't throw him out on his last two races. He'd be one of the horses I'd circle for putting in a trifecta box or something."

This year's Derby will make a trifecta for Breen, Bravo, and Herzberg. The trainer sent out West Side Bernie (9th) and Atomic Rain (16th) in the 2009 Derby and Pants On Fire to a ninth-place finish in 2011. Bravowho has won 13 riding titles at New Jersey's Monmouth Parkhas had two previous Derby mounts, finishing 16th both times on Spanish Chestnut in 2005 and with Atomic Rain. Herzberg will be attending the Derby for the third time.

While watching his horse cool out and biding his time until the draw on May 1, Breen reflected on the Triple Crown scene. Even though it's only a five-week run from Derby to Preakness Stakes (gr. I) to the Belmont, it can take a toll.

"The timing of the Kentucky Derby and all the horses that have won their prep races make the hype for the Derby that much more," Breen said. "When you get to the Belmont, it's kind of like you're getting to the finale. Everybody has their Derby dreams and Belmont is kind of like what's left of the Triple Crown carnage."

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