“We decided last night that if Robby rode today, we would stick with him,” said Barry Irwin, chief executive officer of Team Valor International. “But if he was not able to ride today, we didn't feel comfortable riding him on Saturday. We made the decision this morning, before the betting opened, so the 'punters' would have full knowledge of what the deal was."
Trainer Graham Motion said he is happy with the colt as he approaches America’s most important race.
“He’s doing very well and I feel very good about running him,” Motion said. “I feel good about how he’s doing. I’m pretty relaxed about it, to be honest.”
Motion is a good example of a trainer who has seen his scenario for the Derby under go a complete overhaul since mid-March. At that point, Animal Kingdom was a maiden winner who had finished second in an allowance race on turf, and Toby’s Corner was a coming off a third-place finish in the Gotham (GIII).
Animal Kingdom established himself as a Derby prospect with his win in the Spiral on March 26 and Toby’s Corner won the Wood Memorial (GI) on April 9. Animal Kingdom turned in a nice work at Churchill Downs on Saturday, April 30 that confirmed he was ready for the Derby, but Toby’s Corner was found to have a problem with his left rear leg on Monday, May 2, an injury that kept him out of the race.
Motion has seen his lineup change and has had to change riders on Animal Kingdom. “I’ve kind of been through all of the ups and downs, the emotions of it,” Motion said. “I’m kind of getting to the point where I’m putting that behind me.
“It’s been a real emotional roller coaster for everybody, particularly for the guys at Fair Hill, who put so much into Toby’s Corner. That is the nature of the game and it’s what you grow used to. I certainly wouldn’t have anticipated two months ago this horse running in the Derby, but I don’t think that’s a knock against him because I think he’s a really special horse. Regardless of what happens on Saturday, he’s a really good horse.”
The Derby will be Animal Kingdom’s first race on dirt and the breeze on Saturday gave Motion confidence that he can handle the change in surfaces.
“That was a very good work,” Motion said. “It’s still different to go over there in the afternoon and duplicate that. It was a very good work and that has kind of kept me relaxed about the whole situation.”
ARCHARCHARCH – It was all smiles Friday morning at Barn 40 as Robert and Val Yagos’ Archarcharch completed his preparations for Kentucky Derby 137 with a mile and a half gallop over a fast race track with jockey Jon Court up.
“He looked good galloping by me,” trainer Jinks Fires said. “We’re all good here and he won’t go out in the morning.”
It has been a big week for the 70-year-old Fires as he prepares to send out his first Derby starter and the high pressure valve has been kept on low with members of the Fires family converging on Louisville and the trainer even allowing a local TV sports anchor to ride his pony a couple of mornings.
It also did not hurt that the barn picked up a winner Thursday in Court’s Journey, a 3-year-old ridden by Jon Court and owned and bred by Fires’ daughter and Court’s wife Krystal.
“The owner was ecstatic,” said Jon Court, who rode three winners Thursday and has six victories in the first four days of the meet. “It’s the only horse she has now.”
Two of the victories Thursday came from post position one, the spot from which Archarcharch will break on Saturday. “I’ll take back and try to avoid getting bumped around,” Court said looking ahead to Saturday and leaving the one hole on Archarcharch.
On hand to watch the morning activity was Doug Fires, Jinks’ 30-year-old son who is on leave from Camp Pendleton in California.
“I haven’t been to a Derby since I was a kid,” said Doug Fires, a Marine Cobra helicopter pilot who has served two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “The Derby was always during finals week (at the Naval Academy) or I was deployed.”
BRILLIANT SPEED – Live Oak Plantation’s homebred Dynaformer colt Brilliant Speed galloped a mile and a quarter under assistant trainer Dan Blacker Friday morning.
Trainer Tom Albertrani watched the colt while he was on the track from a spot along the rail and said the Toyota Blue Grass (G1) winner is coming up to the Derby the right way.
“He’s definitely on the muscle and that’s what I want to see,” Albertrani said. “I want to see him go around there. He’s dragging my rider around there and that’s usually a good indication for me; that’s when he’s doing good.
“I feel pretty confident. He’s training extremely well. The only question is how he’s going to handle this surface. I feel pretty confident going into the race.”
Brilliant Speed ran poorly on dirt in his first two career starts last year, but began to blossom when he was switched to longer races on the turf in the fall. He ran well in two grass stakes at Gulfstream Park during the winter and earned his ticket to the Derby with a victory on the Polytrack at Keeneland in the Blue Grass.
Albertrani acknowledged that it is wide-open race with many contenders.
“I’m focused on my horse right now and I find a lot of positives on my horse. That’s why I feel pretty confident,” he said. “There’s not one horse you could lay a finger on because that’s why they are all in there.”
As a son of Dynaformer out of a Gone West mare, Brilliant Speed has bloodlines that say he could be a player in the Derby.
“He’s got the pedigree. The distance is going to be no problem for him,” Albertrani said. “I love the way he’s training. I think he’s going to run well.”
COMMA TO THE TOP – Trainer Peter Miller had his Kentucky Derby charge Comma to the Top out at 7 a.m. Friday for a bit of exercise on a cool and cloudy morning at Churchill Downs. The Southern California-based conditioner, who also serves as his horse’s exercise rider for their Kentucky adventure, jogged his gelding once around the big strip as well as allowing him to stand for a minute in the starting gate.
“Took it easy on him today,” the trainer said. “If he isn’t fit by now, I’m not going to get him fit today.”
Comma to the Top, a son of the Indian Charlie sire Bwana Charlie, is the most experienced horse in the field for Derby 137 with 13 starts already under his girth. The speedster, who will be handled by veteran Patrick Valenzuela, is considered by many the likely pacesetter in the 10-furlong classic.
Miller was asked about his plans for Comma to the Top on Derby Day.
“Usually I just walk my horses on the day they race,” the trainer said. “But with post so late for this race (scheduled for 6:24 p.m.), I might put him on the track for a jog in the morning.”
The Florida-bred bay will break from post position six in the 19-horse Derby field.
DECISIVE MOMENT – Just For Fun Stable’s Decisive Moment jogged once the wrong way under trainer Juan Arias on Friday morning at Churchill Downs.
Arias shares a name with the trainer of Canonero II, who pulled off a huge upset in the 1971 Kentucky Derby.
The South Florida-based trainer, who is no relation to Canonero II’s trainer, will saddle Decisive Moment with a dream of joining him in Derby history.
“It means a lot to my career. It’s a race that everybody wants to be in,” Arias said.
Just having a horse in the Derby field has been an important development in his training career.
“It shows that I can take a horse to the next level,” he said.
Kerwin Clark has the mount aboard Decisive Moment.
DERBY KITTEN/TWINSPIRED -- With their respective owners buzzing around the barn Friday morning, it was business as usual for the Mike Maker-trained duo of Derby Kitten and Twinspired. Both turned in routine, mile and a half gallops as their trainer tended to business across town at Trackside Training Center. Derrick Smith was up for Twinspired, while Rachel Muzikar was aboard Derby Kitten.
Maker, an assistant trainer under D. Wayne Lukas when Charismatic won the 1999 Kentucky Derby, seeks his first Derby glory as a head trainer. A victory by Derby Kitten or Twinspired promises to be a raucous victory for the locals who make up their ownership. Ken and Sarah Ramsey of Nicholasville, Ky. own Derby Kitten, while Twinspired is owned by Alpha Stables (Jim Shircliff, et al), Skychai Racing (Dr. Harvey Diamond) and Sand Dollar Syndicate (David Koenig, et al), comprised mostly of folks from Louisville and Union, Ky.
The Ramseys are among Churchill’s most famous faces and have won a remarkable 17 leading owner meet titles. The Kentucky Derby would be the one jewel above all others for Ramsey.
“The only Derby I missed since 1967 was Lil E. Tee’s year (1992) when I was in the hospital,” Ken Ramsey said. “We will be there with bells on Saturday with the entire family. There’s only one Kentucky Derby!”
DIALED IN – Trainer Nick Zito has been particularly hands-on while preparing Dialed In for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, and that trend continued Friday morning. The Hall of Fame trainer helped give his 4-1 morning-line favorite a bath following his morning gallop.
“I’m fond of this horse, and I really like everything he’s done so far. He’s done everything at a high level and he’s gotten here, so far,” Zito said. “This never gets old.”
Saturday will mark the 20th anniversary of Zito’s first of two Kentucky Derby victories. Strike the Gold closed off the pace to capture the 1991 Run for the Roses, three years before Go for Gin put him in the winner’s circle for a second time in 1994.
“We were blessed to win in 1991 and then come back and win it again,” Zito said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve won this race, but you’ve got to be thankful for the ones you won.”
Zito said he gets emotional when he thinks about Strike the Gold’s victory and how much Dialed In reminds him of his first Derby winner.
“They’re both not very big, but they’re balanced. ‘Strikey’ is muscular, this horse is muscular, but they’re not very tall,’ he said. “They both have great personalities and they have the same running style, just coming from last.”
Dialed In, who won his debut at Churchill Downs in November, closed from last to win the Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream Park in his most recent start. He expects the son of Mineshaft to come from far off the pace on Saturday.
“I just think he has to run his race. He’s a closer and that’s the way he needs to run,” Zito said. “There are a lot of good horses in the race. There are four or five horses that look good, but you have to beat all of them. You don’t underestimate your opponent. I don’t look any horses other than my one. I’m just zeroing in on my horse.
Zito has faith in Julien Leparoux, Dialed In’s regular rider.
“Pat Day has the greatest hands around, but this kid comes pretty close,” Zito said. “He has a good head on his shoulder, and I knew he was going to be a come from behind horse, so I thought he was the ideal jock.”
MASTER OF HOUNDS – Mrs. John Magnier’s Master of Hounds trotted once around the track and then cantered a circuit under exercise rider Pat Lillis on Friday morning.
The Kingmambo colt is being handled by T.J. Comerford, the traveling head lad for Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien, who will attend the Derby.
Master of Hounds has raced once this year, finishing a game second by a nose in the UAE Derby (GII) that was part of the undercard for the Dubai World Cup program on March 26. The colt was shipped from Ireland to Louisville on Tuesday, spent Wednesday in quarantine and had some exercise time on the track on Thursday and Friday.
Comerford said he likes the way the colt looks and got over the track as he approaches the race.
“He was very good,” Comerford said. “Pat is happy with him. He’s grand now. He was well-behaved out here again today. We’re very happy with him.
Lillis said the colt felt good to him on the dirt. The horse trains and races on grass or synthetic surfaces.
“He’s a natural,” Lillis said.
Comerford said preparations are complete and he is looking forward to Master of Hounds being able to go out and race.
“There’s nothing more than we can do now,” he said. “We’ll see how things turn out tomorrow. He doesn’t mind all that’s going on around him. It’s all new to him, but he’s very good. We’re very pleased with him.”
Garrett Gomez will ride Master of Hounds, who will exit post position 11.
MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE – Arnold Zetcher’s homebred Santa Anita Derby (GI) winner Midnight Interlude had a normal morning Friday, galloping once around the main track.
“He looks great. He’s done everything right here,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “It’s a matter of if he’s good enough. I think we’re all in the same boat.”
Victor Espinosa will ride Midnight Interlude in the Kentucky Derby.
Midnight Interlude did not run as a 2-year-old and has emerged as a Derby horse since his debut in late January. Should he win, he will be the first horse to win the Derby without a start as a 2-year-old since Apollo won the race in 1882.
Baffert said he never imagined in January that Midnight Interlude would take him to the Derby.
“Hell no,” he said. “We knew he could run and we liked him, but I was thinking he was more of a turf horse.”
That thinking changed when the colt won a maiden race in March and Baffert decided to try him in the Santa Anita Derby.
“The good ones develop really quickly,” Baffert said. “That’s what I liked about this horse. It’s just, boom, boom, boom. All of a sudden you’ve got this little 13-year-old throwing this 40-yard pass. You do, `hey that’s what I want.’ The good ones come around quick.”
MUCHO MACHO MAN – Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and Dream Team Racing’s Mucho Macho Man galloped two miles under exercise rider Mike Herra on Friday morning.
Trainer Kathy Ritvo posed for pictures with groups of well-wishers outside Barn 41 after the morning activity, handing out green and yellow Mucho Macho Man bands.
“I’m having fun. I’m excited, very excited. It’s not a high pressure week for me. The horse is doing good, and that’s what I’m concerned with,” Ritvo said. “The high pressure week for me was waiting for a heart. This is fun.”
Ritvo, who underwent a heart transplant in 2008, has been the most interviewed trainer at Churchill Downs this week and is sure to be in great demand by national media outlets should Mucho Macho Man be victorious in the Derby.
“I can tell them about organ donation and my fabulous horse, Mucho Macho Man,” Ritvo said.
The 42-year-old South Florida-based trainer expressed pleasure with the son of Macho Uno’s physical condition.
“I think he’s actually even gaining weight in hard training,” Ritvo said. “I’m ready for war. I think he has a good chance. I think he has as good a chance as any. He’s peaking right now. I couldn’t ask him to be training any better.”
Rajiv Maragh, who was aboard for Mucho Macho Man’s Risen Star Stakes (GII) triumph, has the mount.
NEHRO – Zayat Stables LLC’s Nehro is primed and ready to put forth a peak effort in Kentucky Derby 137. The Arkansas Derby (GI) and Louisiana Derby (GII) runner-up galloped 1 ¼ miles Friday morning and trainer Steve Asmussen reported that all is well.
“So far so good,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nehro’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, understandably had mixed feelings about the defection of 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo. Strategically, Nehro gets to move one post position closer to the rail, from 19 to 18, and will now break outside of a likely pace factor in Soldat, a more favorable scenario.
However, Zayat is one of the few people who understand exactly what Uncle Mo’s owner, Mike Repole, is experiencing today, having been forced to withdraw last year’s likely Derby favorite, Eskendereya, six days before the race.
“It’s absolutely horrible, that feeling,” Zayat said shortly after Repole and Todd Pletcher’s morning news conference, which was all too similar to the one Zayat and Pletcher called last year. “It’s horrible for everyone in the industry to lose a 3-year-old champion, one that, in my opinion, was a very special horse. It’s a very hard thing for racing.”
Zayat conceded that “for selfish reasons,” he is pleased to move from post 19, where no horse has won the Derby from, to 18, where Gato Del Sol set a new precedent in 1982. In that running, Gato Del Sol was last of 19 around the clubhouse turn before Eddie Delahoussaye started picking off horses down the backside and passed most of the rest of the field coming out of the turn, going on to win impressively by 2 ½ lengths.
Zayat emphasized that he was already at peace with his initial post draw and, while this may be a slight improvement, it does not drastically affect his chances. What matters most is that the Mineshaft colt is in good form and they have a jockey, Corey Nakatani, known for his ability to save ground.
“We are so pumped,” Zayat said. “Everything is coming together and he is an unbelievably happy horse. I have 150 horses so I can tell when one is doing well.”
PANTS ON FIRE – George and Lori Hall’s homebred Pants On Fire galloped one mile around the Churchill Downs oval the day before Kentucky Derby 137, trainer Kelly Breen reported.
Pants On Fire is expected to be on or near the early pace in Kentucky Derby 137, but a closer examination of his sixth-place effort in February’s Risen Star Stakes (GII) at Fair Grounds reveals a horse that can relax mid-pack and unleash a Derby-winning kick on the final turn. The Jump Start colt made a big move at the 5/16ths -pole in New Orleans, but was fanned about six-wide into the stretch and flattened out in the lane.
“That could be Plan B,” Breen said. “You watch the race in the Risen Star and at the quarter-pole we’re two lengths out of it in striking position. He can come from off the pace, but Plan A is to be on the pace.”
Pants On Fire was found to be sick after the Risen Star and Breen thinks it likely he had already caught the bug before that race. Breen gave him about 10 days to recover at the Palm Meadows training center and it was after that time off that Pants On Fire really turned a corner, blossoming into the colt that would dig in gamely to win the $1 million Louisiana Derby (GII) at nine furlongs a few weeks later.
Jockey Rosie Napravnik will be the one to ultimately decide whether to send or sit.
SANTIVA – Trainer Eddie Kenneally never grew up in Ireland dreaming of winning the Kentucky Derby, but after Santiva completed a mile and a half gallop Friday morning, he’s now within a day of that very possibility.
“The Kentucky Derby wasn’t something I really dreamed of until I started working here in this country,” Kenneally said. “Once you’re here in America, it doesn’t take long to realize how special this race is. I’ve been training here at Churchill Downs since 1993 and I’m well aware of what this race is all about. It’s what we all want.”
Santiva’s familiarity with the Churchill Downs surface could play a role in his potential success. The Kentucky Jockey Club (GII) winner of last fall has that horse-for-course angle working in his favor.
“I think you have to believe that ‘horses for courses’ is true,” Kenneally said. “I think it’s definitely an edge. He’s raced and trained and stabled here for a long time and is very familiar with the whole situation.”
Santiva will return to the track on Derby morning for a light jog. Kenneally said it’s not out of the norm for him to jog a horse on race day, that it’s more of a horse-by-horse decision.
SHACKLEFORD – The Florida Derby (GI) runner-up Shackleford put the finishing touches on his Derby 137 training Saturday morning with a mile and a half gallop under Faustino Ramos. Trainer Dale Romans indicated afterward that Shackleford would not go to the racetrack on Derby morning.
Pace and composure will be two key factors in Shackleford’s success in Saturday’s Derby. Expected to be one of the front-runners, Romans has a vision for the perfect scenario.
“I hope everyone takes back and leaves us two lengths in front,” Romans said with a wry smile. “And then we improve our position from there.”
As for composure, the well-mannered Shackleford has handled everything thrown his way so far.
“You can’t simulate Derby Day,” Romans said. “So no one really knows how their horse will handle the crowd. But he has been very good over there schooling with quite a few people watching this week.”
SOLDAT – All’s well at the Kiaran McLaughlin barn as his Kentucky Derby 137 hopeful Soldat completed his final preparations for Saturday’s main event. Soldat galloped a mile and a half under exercise rider Danny Wright and will not go to the track on race day, McLaughlin said.
“He’s great, ready to go,” McLaughlin said. “That’s it as far as preparation.”
The Fountain of Youth (GII) winner, who reacted negatively to the sultry heat on Florida Derby Day, has had a rejuvenating week in Kentucky, according to his trainer.
“The cool weather all this week really helped him,” McLaughlin said. “He picked it up once he got here. You can see he’s got bright eyes and has been eating really well. He’s responded to the cool weather for sure.”
STAY THIRSTY/UNCLE MO – Though both colts galloped Friday, the real news out of the Repole Stable camp came a few hours later at about 8:45 a.m. when owner Mike Repole, sitting side-by-side with his trainer, Todd Pletcher, made an announcement that had been anticipated for the past few days – juvenile champion and one-time Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Mo had been officially withdrawn from the race.
Repole spoke to a sizeble gathering of media in Churchill Downs auxiliary press box:
“About a half hour ago Todd scratched Uncle Mo and he will not run in the Kentucky Derby,” the owner said.
Repole noted that his pride and joy had trained well at the track as recently as last Sunday, that he continued to do well in his gallops, but that something still “just was not right” with the 3-year-old son of Indian Charlie.
“We had three vets (Dr. Doug Byers, Dr. Steve Allday and Dr. Ken Reid) go over him yesterday,” Repole said. “But after they left, Todd said ‘I don’t want to run this horse.’ The vets didn’t say the horse couldn’t run; in fact they said he could. But when Todd said he didn’t want to run, that was pretty much it for me. I know he treats these horses better than he treats his own health and if he didn’t want it, then that was that.”
Repole said in his thinking process the three vets had one vote, Pletcher had another and he was the third. He sided with his trainer and the decision was made.
Pletcher, who had to scratch the Kentucky Derby favorite in Eskendereya last year during Derby Week, was obviously downcast at the latest development with a horse he called “the best I’ve ever trained.”
“I am very, very, very, very disappointed about this,” Pletcher said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a horse as good as Uncle Mo. We’ve had every resource to try to get this horse right, but we’re not there. I take this as a personal failure. We just don’t know what’s wrong with this horse and it scares me. If feel very sorry for Mike. I feel very sorry for Johnny Velazquez. This is the third year in a row he’s lost the Derby favorite.”
Last year, Hall of Fame candidate Velazquez was scheduled to ride Eskendereya in the race and in 2009 he had the call on Quality Road, who appeared to be the Derby favorite prior to being withdrawn because of injury.
Pletcher said he just has not been pleased with Uncle Mo’s general demeanor, noting specifically his depressed appetite, his loss of weight and his loss of hair color over the last while, even though he continued to train and gallop well (“He galloped like a monster this morning,” the trainer said.)
Uncle Mo has been treated for a gastrointestinal track problem since shortly after his third-place finish as the stout favorite in the Wood Memorial (GI) in New York on April 9. He has received antibiotics as part of his treatment.
“We took him off his meds the past few days coming up to the race and he hasn’t done as well since,” Pletcher said. “The vet tests have shown us that there is one particular enzyme that has been elevated and that usually has something to do with kidney or liver problems.
“The real problem here is that we’re in a gray area. It just isn’t clear. We’re not sure what it all means. I just don’t feel that this horse is right. The Wood was the first tip off to that. When he ran the way he did, we knew something wasn’t right. We’ve been trying to figure out what since.
“I told Mike that this decision will stink on May 7. But later in the year – when they run the Jim Dandy, the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup Classic – maybe it will be the right decision.”
Both Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty put in gallops of a mile and one quarter Friday morning at about 6:10. Uncle Mo had his regular exercise rider, Hector Ramos, aboard, while Stay Thirsty, the hero of the Gotham Stakes (GIII), was handled by his regular morning man, Fernando Espinoza. Stay Thirsty will break from post position four Saturday and be handled by Ramon Dominguez.
“We’re really lucky to still have Stay Thirsty for the race,” Pletcher added. “But Uncle Mo was the franchise.”
Pletcher also said that Uncle Mo could not be called officially out of training, but that they would make no further plans for the colt “until we get a proper diagnosis.”
Repole, the irrepressible New York businessman who is heavily invested in the racing game and feels that he’s got the horse of a lifetime in Uncle Mo, spoke further to his disappointment.
“Todd didn’t like his weight, his energy, his coat,” he said. “We brought in the best vets you can get and they are baffled. We can’t find an answer.”
Repole has brought in 95 friends and family from New York for the Derby and said he was happy to have them with him going through this hard time.
“We had a wonderful dinner with everyone at a restaurant in town last night and it was good,” he stated. “Family is important.”
Repole said that yesterday morning at about 10:30, after the vets had offered their opinions and he heard from Pletcher, he all but made the decision to scratch. He said they waited to see some test results, but that his path then was clear.
“I was actually relieved (that they were not going to run Uncle Mo),” the owner said. “I know I’m lucky I’ve got another horse to run in the race and we’ll hope he can step up. But our thoughts are with Uncle Mo. We want to find out what’s wrong with him and get him right; get him back.
“We are not worried about his race schedule. We don’t know what’s wrong with him and we’re worried about the horse.”
TWICE THE APPEAL – The Sunland Derby (GIII) winner was out early Friday morning at Churchill Downs for a 5:45 double tour of the oval – once in a jog, once in a gallop – under exercise rider Nate Quinonez.
The colt by Successful Appeal will break from post position four in the 19-horse Derby lineup and be handled by Calvin Borel, who’ll be shooting for an unprecedented third straight victory in the world’s most famous race.
Trainer Jeff Bonde, the Northern California-based conditioner who has guided his Kentucky-bred colt through a 10-race career that includes three wins and nearly $450,000 in earnings so far, said he was likely to put his charge on the track for some light exercise Saturday morning.
“We’ll get him out early for a little jog,” he said. “Other than that, we’re all ready to go.”
WATCH ME GO – Gil Campbell’s Watch Me Go galloped 1 ½ miles under Freddie Lenclud on Friday morning to the satisfaction of trainer Kathleen O’Connell.
“I’m still holding together,” O’Connell said with a smile. “You can feel the high energy of emotions; you can feel the high energy of tension and we’re still a day away.”
O’Connell has plenty to do to keep her busy while waiting for Derby Day.
“I still have other things to keep track of. I have 21 horses running in the next three days at Tampa. There is other business to attend to, but this is the main focus, and most of my owners are understanding and happy,” O’Connell said.
Rafael Bejarano will ride Watch Me Go for the first time in the Derby.