Sunday, March 13, 2011
Too Good for the Derby
Myung Kwon Cho usually doesn't run a horse this good in the Kentucky Derby. When Cho brings a horse to Louisville, he prefers that they be a 65-1 shot that he claimed off Wayne Lukas for a ham sandwich; or a hopeless 109-1 shot who's lost all 15 of his races. Premier Pegasus, Cho's current Derby candidate, has a profile that's better than John Barrymore's. Premier Pegasus won at first asking, last summer at Del Mar, won two more, finished a good third in a Grade 2 and now he's won a Grade 2. He not only beat what was thought to be California's best 3-year-old, but the margin of 7 3/4 lengths was a stakes record. Premier Pegasus finished in Arcadia, where the race was run; when he reached the line, Jaycito, the favored second-place horse, was still in outer Monrovia.
Video Ranger and Nationalore, he's not. Video Ranger was Cho's first Derby horse, in 1990. I made a big deal out of Bobby Frankel running a maiden, Pendleton Ridge, in that year's Derby, and for a while Frankel would only talk to me if he could use the f-word three times in every sentence. Video Ranger, who had won one race, one more than Pendleton Ridge, slipped into Churchill Downs minus the usual slurs that a Derby underachiever must absorb. Hardly anybody even noticed Video Ranger until Eddie Delahoussaye said he wouldn't ride him and Cho and his trainer, Ian Jory, hired the dodgy Ron Hansen.
Cho was wrong about his horse, of course. Video Ranger didn't win the Derby. But Cho wasn't wrong by much. Video Ranger ran fourth, and he outfinished the three horses that were trained by Lukas, who tut-tutted before the race that "no horse claimed off me has ever amounted to anything." Cho's claim off Lukas was $40,000.
Eight years later, Cho was back at Churchill with Nationalore, a son of Video Ranger. With a maiden, Cho was to the 1998 Derby what Frankel had been to the 1990 version. But while Nationalore couldn't beat lowly California-breds, he seemed to relish running second and third (12 times), and by running third as Favorite Trick won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he had jacked up his earnings to almost $300,000. His purse total was higher than seven of the other horses in the race. That didn't help, as he struggled home ninth, and two years later, when he was put down after breaking his shoulder at Hollywood Park, Nationalore was still a maiden, winless in 26 races. With purses totaling $318,227, he lives on as one of the richest non-winners to ever race.
By 1998, Cho was owning as well as training his horses, at least that's what the listings in the programs said. The week of the 1998 Derby, the Korean-born Cho was too busy with his clothing export business back in Los Angeles and his assistant, Rafael Martinez, cared for the horse at Churchill. Martinez also has a lot to do with the development of Premier Pegasus, although the 68-year-old Cho is triple-listed as breeder, owner and trainer. Fifty years ago, there was a Derby winner whose trainer, Jack Price, was also triple-listed (although technically, Price's wife, Katherine, carried the owner's tag).
Carry Back, as he was known, was as cheaply bred as they come, by nobody (Saggy) out of never-heard-of-her (Joppy). Premier Pegasus will not carry that bloodlines stigma if he runs well in the Santa Anita Derby and punches his ticket for Louisville. His sire, Fusaichi Pegasus, won the 2000 Kentucky Derby, and in fact won the same prep race, the San Felipe at Santa Anita, that Premier Pegasus has won. Premier Pegasus' dam, Squall Linda, is by Summer Squall, winner of the Preakness. On the page, the colt had every right to beat Jaycito and the rest of them. On the track, he did more than that. Chewing them up and spitting them out is about right.