“Rest in Peace, Kensei.”
I saw those words last week on Facebook, and my heart just sank. Kensei had been a horse that I watched and admired for the better part of four seasons, and in the time that it took me to read four simple words, I knew he was gone.
Kensei was a five-year-old son of Mr. Greeley, out of Private Feeling, by Belong To Me. He may never have been a champion, but he was a major stakes winner, and a tough horse that was not afraid to give his all. Among his victories were three graded stakes; the Jim Dandy, Dwyer, and Salvator Mile. Despite all his success on the racetrack, he was a horse who seemed always to be overshadowed. First by his stablemate and fellow member of the 2006 foal crop, Rachel Alexandra, and then later by his little brother, Lookin At Lucky.
I initially noticed the bay colt in his very first start. Kensei won his debut race in impressive fashion in a maiden special weight at Saratoga on August 6, 2008. He only had one more race as a juvenile, where he battled on the lead before succumbing late in the Futurity Stakes at Belmont. Although he had only two starts, it was clear that the Steve Asmussen trained runner had ability.
Things would come together for him at three. He won his seasonal debut at Oaklawn before finishing 2nd and 3rd in two sharp stakes races, the Derby Trial and the Woody Stephens Stakes. Those fast sprints set him up perfectly for his first try at a route of ground. Sent off at odds of nearly 7-1 in the Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes, Kensei stalked the early pace before easily taking over and winning off by more than three lengths. Four weeks later the Stonestreet Stables runner built upon this success by dominating the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga. Suddenly Kensei was talked about as one of the top three-year-old males in the nation.
His next race came in the Travers, and while 1 ¼ miles proved too long for him, his very presence helped shape what happened in two of the year’s most important races. His emergence, and entry in the Travers, allowed his connections to enter their stable star, Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward, which she would make history by winning.
After the taxing race in the Travers, that was won by soon to be champion Summer Bird, Kensei would never again hit the heights he did in winning the Dwyer and Jim Dandy. In fact he did not reach the winner’s circle again for quite some time. He was stakes placed several times, but did not break through again until this summer. Meanwhile, stablemate Rachel Alexandra was awarded with the Horse of the Year Award for 2009, and his younger sibling, Lookin At Lucky, a son of Smart Strike, emerged as the top colt of his crop, winning a juvenile championship in 2009, and the three-year-old championship last year.
He may have been overshadowed, but he persevered, and I believe his last two races were his best since 2009. Always a fan, I took great joy in these two performances. On July 2, he upset a strong field to win the Grade 3 Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park. He followed that up with a game 2nd place finish when he was defeated by less than a length to Soaring Empire. The future appeared bright for the experienced racer for the remainder of 2011, and with luck, there would be more big efforts before he would begin a stud career in 2012. But sometimes the world has other plans for those we care about.
On Tuesday morning Kensei was euthanized after breaking down during a gallop over the Belmont Park training track. He had suffered a broken right front cannon bone that could not be repaired. It always breaks my heart to lose a friend, especially one who still had so much living to do. I remember you Kensei.