Driving down to Louisville, there were a handful of horses that I could not wait to see galloping over the Churchill Drowns main track in advance of the 140th Kentucky Derby. Intense Holiday was on the short list. It would not be the first time I’d see the strapping son of Harlan’s Holiday, but I was really expecting to see something more from him this time around.
The first occasion I had seen Intense Holiday up close and personal was less than satisfying. Coming off a thrilling, get up in the last possible jump, victory in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes, I was looking forward to seeing the colt that I considered a legitimate Derby horse in the million dollar Louisiana Derby. As Vicar’s In Trouble ran off with an easy win, Intense Holiday, who looked like a real contender coming out of the far turn, struggled down the stretch, and while still managing to finish second, it was not the race many were expecting from the race favorite. I later heard that his awkward stretch run was attributable to something called cross firing. Basically, his front legs and his back legs were running out of sync. He underwent a unique, noninvasive back treatment after the Louisiana Derby, so it would not happen again. This was not the first time Intense Holiday would have an unusual medical issue.
Craig and Carrie Brogden’s Machmer Hall Farm bred Intense Holiday in partnership with Haymarket Farm. A son of the 2002 Kentucky Derby favorite, Harlan’s Holiday, out of Unbridled’s Song’s daughter Intensify, he almost never saw his first week of life complete. While undergoing a routine plasma treatment, the young foal suffered a reaction to the plasma. Suddenly, he was in a life and death situation, unable to breath. Craig grabbed their oxygen tank and turned it on full blast thrusting the hose directly up Intense Holiday’s nostril. After what seemed like an eternity of the foal slipping away, Intense Holiday slowly started to become more alert again and hold himself up on his chest. The foal began breathing normally again, and within 30 minutes he stood up looking as any two-day-old would. None the worse for wear, he nursed with his mother until full, and laid down for a nice long nap.
Making it through that ordeal, Intense Holiday grew into a big, strong youngster that caught the eye of the classic winning former trainer Frankie Brothers, who was scouting talent as a representative for Starlight Racing. On Brothers recommendation, Starlight would move on Intense Holiday, and the yearling colt who was so close to not surviving past his first few days on earth, was purchased as a September yearling at Keeneland for $380,000.
Now in the barn of Todd Pletcher, Intense Holiday didn’t do much in his career debut, a 5 ½ furlong maiden sprint at Monmouth Park, but bounced right back when stretched to a mile in his second start. The easy win on the Jersey Shore was enough to give his connections the green light to begin his stakes career. After contending early on, Intense Holiday would fade back to the middle of the pack in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes while making only his third career start. Armed with a new, more patient running style next time, the dark bay colt became more competitive with each successive stakes start.
In both the Nashua and Remsen, a pair of late season grade 2 races at Aqueduct, he closed well to hit the board. Picking right up where he left off, his first start as a three-year-old was even more promising. Circling horses on the far outside, Intense Holiday rallied from 10th to finish a fast closing 3rd in the Holy Bull Stakes on a speed favoring surface at Gulfstream Park. The big rally was a sign of things to come, for in his second start of the season, Intense Holiday scored a dramatic victory in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.
The strange runner-up finish in the Louisiana Derby was next, but Intense Holiday appeared to be thriving after arriving in Louisville. He quickly became one of the most talked about horse pre-Derby, especially after leaving his multiple stakes winning work partner, We Miss Artie far behind in a Churchill Downs workout. Sure enough, when I arrived in Louisville, I liked what I saw. Save his stablemate, Danza, I honestly thought he looked as good as anyone in the field.
The Kentucky Derby, though, would not go his way. Repeatedly nudged wide from his outside post position, Intense Holiday was much closer to the pace than I expected. Wide and contesting the pace for much of the way, he had little punch left for the stretch drive, and as California Chrome raced to glory, Intense Holiday slowly faded down the stretch to finish 12th of 19.
After the Derby, I chalked much of the disappointing finish to the fact that he was used way too hard early. I thought getting back to the style of racing that had brought about more success in the fall of his juvenile season (more relaxed early) would be the ticket, and that Intense Holiday still had big things ahead. The news came in that he would skip the Preakness, and be pointed for the 1 ½ mile Belmont. I remember thinking his pattern reminded me quite a bit of Palace Malice, who also went the Florida to New Orleans route for Todd Pletcher before getting cooked early in the Kentucky Derby. And as we all remember, Palace Malice went on to win the Belmont Stakes, and hasn’t stopped winning since. I really believed that Intense Holiday, despite his 12th place finish at Churchill Downs, would have a shot in the Belmont.
Everything happened much too fast after that. Intense Holiday suffered a condylar fracture while training at Belmont Park on May 25 with his stablemate, and eventual Belmont runner-up, Commissioner. Within two days Intense Holiday underwent surgery to repair the fracture. It was announced he was retired from racing, but recovery was expected. Considering his breeding and ability, his future as a stallion was bright.
We will never know. On June 12, just a few days after he was scheduled to run in the Belmont Stakes, Intense Holiday was gone. The announcement came from Starlight that the colt, barely three years on this earth, had fought on bravely, but the laminitis he had contracted in both forelimbs had become irreversible. He was euthanized at Hogan Equine Veterinary Clinic.