Even though Kentucky Derby (G1) third-place finisher Mr. Big News earned a free roll in the 145th Preakness Stakes (G1) by virtue of winning Oaklawn Park’s $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes, owner Chester Thomas and trainer Bret Calhoun said that has no bearing on their decision to run in Pimlico’s famed 1 3/16-mile classic.
What does have bearing is a workout Mr. Big News had Friday at Churchill Downs, where he cruised a half-mile in 48 4/5 seconds under regular exercise rider Tony Quinones, registering the 22nd fastest of 76 works at the distance. Calhoun said he’s seeing all the right signs.
“He was very sharp this morning,” he said. “I know it was cool. He went a little quicker than we wanted, but did it very easy, well within himself. He was full of energy, kind of what we wanted to see. It was what we wanted or better.
Calhoun said Mr. Big News will have a final workout on Saturday, Sept. 26. If all continues to go well, the Giant’s Causeway colt will be heading to Baltimore. Yet to be determined is if he’ll fly or van, he said.
“He’s a fit horse; he doesn’t need a lot,” Calhoun said of next week’s work. “I’m not looking for fitness. Just maintain what we’ve got and hold his edge.”
Mr. Big News needed the sort of performance he displayed in the Kentucky Derby for his team to consider the Preakness.
“Absolutely,” Calhoun said. “The free ride in the Preakness was there, but he needed to prove that he belonged with that group of horses.”
Mr. Big News required four races before winning, then was fifth in the Fair Grounds’ Risen Star (G2). The victory at 46-1 odds in the April 11 Oaklawn Stakes followed before Kentucky Derby aspirations were dashed — temporarily, as it turned out — by a disappointing sixth in Keeneland’s rescheduled Toyota Blue Grass (G2) in July. Next on the agenda was to try grass, for which Mr. Big News is well-bred.
But rain left the Churchill Downs turf course too soft for Calhoun to feel they could get a true reading on the colt’s affinity for the weeds. About the same time, it became clear that Churchill’s new 20-stall starting gate would not be filled this Derby. And Calhoun loved how Mr. Big News was training.
As entry day for the Kentucky Derby approached, Thomas drew up a list of pros and cons on running.
“I had this long sales pitch I was going to give Bret,” Thomas said. “I didn’t get very far into it when he said, ‘Dude, you want to run in the Derby; we’re going to run in the Derby.’ I didn’t even get to go through my list.”
“The closer we got to the Derby, knowing we could probably get in, I started really dialing in on the Derby in the back of my mind,” Calhoun said. “The weather forecast for Derby Week looked like more rain, so we thought the turf course would remain soft. And the horse was doing really, really good, and we knew he’d love the mile and a quarter.”
Off at 46-1, Mr. Big News was one of the longest shots in the Derby field of 15. He was in 10th early as Authentic was ripping off fractions of 22.91 seconds for the first quarter-mile, 46.41 for the half, 1:10.23 for six furlongs and 1:35.02 for the mile. Favored Tiz the Law hooked Authentic out of the turn for home but Authentic pulled clear lead, winning by 1 1/4 lengths, with Mr. Big News another two lengths back in third.
“There was no question in our mind that we’d be running for sure at the end of the race,” Thomas said of the Derby. “He made that move at the three-eighths pole, honestly, we thought we were going to win that thing for a second. Talk about a thrill. I’d like to say it was a cheap thrill, but it wasn’t cheap because it’s a lot of money to run in the Derby. But it was a heck of a thrill. But those horses dug in. Just give Authentic all the credit. I mean, what a horse. Those fractions, we’re thinking we’re sitting on a winner. I’m looking at those fractions and going, ‘Yeah, yeah. All right! Time to go!’ He made that move; it was so exciting. You never heard anyone scream louder for finishing third.
“So we’re excited. This Preakness looks like it’s going to shape up to be one of the tougher Preaknesses. And that’s OK.”