By Pimlico Press Staff — Bret Calhoun has accrued 3,192 victories and $86 million in purse earnings – both ranking 28th all-time in North America – in 26 years of training horses. The 56-year-old Texas product has won 42 graded stakes and 302 stakes overall.
But showing how difficult it is for the overwhelming majority of horsemen to even get a horse to the Triple Crown, Calhoun only last year had his first Kentucky Derby (G1) starter in Chester Thomas’ By My Standards. This year he and Thomas had their second Derby starter in Mr. Big News, whose rallying third now is giving the men their first horse in the Preakness Stakes (G1).
“It’s exciting. You always have that dream to have a Triple Crown horse,” said Calhoun, whose large stable is a force in Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. “The horses that I’ve had the opportunity to train for years haven’t necessarily been 3-year-old classic types as far as pedigree or conformation, really. I always would have loved to have competed in the classics but never thought it was realistic until here recently when we got just a little bit better caliber of horses that had talent and could develop into that kind of a horse.”
The like-minded Thomas appreciated Calhoun’s work with 2-year-olds and began sending him horses a few years ago at the same time he was going to the sales to upgrade his stock. Another major client, Texan Tom Durant, was doing the same.
“Obviously it gives you a little bounce in your step to know you have those kinds of horses in your barn,” Calhoun said at Churchill Downs.
The son of a Texas school teacher who also owned and trained horses, Calhoun opened his own stable in 1994. His first graded-stakes score came in 2003 with Toby Keith’s Cactus Ridge in Chicago’s Arlington-Washington Futurity (G3).
A critical career move came in 2007 when Calhoun began a Churchill Downs-based division in Louisville for spring, summer and fall. Three years later, he won a pair of Breeders’ Cup races with Chamberlain Bridge in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) and Dubai Majesty in the $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) on her way to the female sprinter championship.
Finding the right 2-year-old to join the Triple Crown trail the next spring proved more elusive.
When By My Standards won the Louisiana Derby (G2) at 22-1 odds off a maiden victory, it was Calhoun’s biggest victory with a 3-year-old. The Kentucky Derby didn’t turn out well, an 11th-place finish in a roughly run race played out over a horribly muddy track, but By My Standards has emerged among this season’s top older horses. When By My Standards got a break after the Derby last year, Calhoun and Thomas’ Mr. Money picked up the slack by reeling off four graded-stakes victories.
Thomas, the Madisonville, Ky., entrepreneur who races in the name of Allied Racing, looked like he had several promising 3-year-olds in the spring. Others seemed more advanced, but Calhoun and Thomas believed the Giant’s Causeway colt would thrive at the longer distances.
Mr. Big News finished fifth behind stablemate Mailman Money’s fourth in a division of the Fair Grounds’ Risen Star (G2). In only his third start, Mailman Money lost by only 2 1/4 lengths with a wide trip.
When it came time to enter the $1 million Louisiana Derby, staged right after COVID-19 began shutting everything down, Mailman Money got in the race and Mr. Big News landed on the also-eligible list, needing a scratch to run.
“We felt (Mailman Money) deserved to run, but honestly we were desperate to run Mr. Big News because he was doing so, so well,” Calhoun said. “At the last minute we decided to run Mailman Money and not Mr. Big News. And of course Mailman Money didn’t run well that day and Mr. Big News worked incredible that next day. I was just sick that I didn’t run him.”
With Keeneland canceling its spring meet and options shrinking, Mr. Big News was sent to Arkansas for the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes, which offered a fees-paid spot in the Preakness Stakes to the winner. That non-graded race on April 11 was positioned on what normally would have been the Arkansas Derby, which was moved to the first Saturday in May after the Kentucky Derby was delayed until Sept. 5.
“Things are a little backward this year,” Calhoun said. “It’s interesting because Mr. Big News won a stakes at Oaklawn that won a berth into the Preakness. At that point in time, I don’t think we even knew when the Preakness was going to be run. We didn’t know if this horse was going to be that caliber or not. Typical situation, improving 3-year-old, and here we are running Oct. 3 and he’s moved forward, improved and taken us there.”
Albeit not directly. A sixth in Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass (G2) rescheduled for July 11 seemed to derail Mr. Big News’ Derby hopes. The new Plan B was to run on the new Derby Day, but in the Grade 2 American Turf.
“The Blue Grass was supposed to be his litmus test to figure out if he belonged with the upper echelon of the 3-year-olds,” Calhoun said. “Gabe (jockey Gabriel Saez, who was serving a suspension) wasn’t able to ride him that day. Mitchell Murrill rode him well but didn’t give him the type of trip that he prefers.
“We did get a little bit discouraged about moving on to the Derby, but we weren’t discouraged with him. We thought it would be a safer play to take a little bit of a lower road. Lo and behold, the Derby doesn’t overfill, gives us an opportunity to run. We were very confident in him getting a mile and a quarter. So we took our shot and it worked out well.”
Calhoun is realistic about the Preakness and making up 3 1/4 lengths on Kentucky Derby winner Authentic — as well as impressive Blue Grass winner Art Collector, who missed the Derby with a foot issue.
“We’ve got to be better, honestly,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got to improve, and Authentic has to either regress a little bit or have some kind of trip that’s unfavorable to him and favorable for me. He was very impressive Derby Day. He earned it. He set hot fractions and finished up well. So there’s a margin there that we’re going to have to find a little more horse.”
Still, he says Mr. Big News has given him “every indication” that the colt is doing as well as he was heading into the Derby. And if Mr. Big News makes headlines in the Preakness?
“That’s just another step forward in your career, kind of the pinnacle,” Calhoun said. “It’s what I think every trainer and owner in this business strives for, a Triple Crown victory.”