Kentucky Derby 2012 Point/Counterpoint: Empire Way vs. Mark Valeski

Union Rags and Hansen may be getting all the buzz this Derby season, but as history has shown, the Derby dark horses are just as likely to win as the favorites. Tony Bada Bing is backing Mark Valeski as his under-the-radar contender, while Managing Editor, Brian Zipse, thinks Empire Way is gearing up for a surprising run for the roses.

Todd Pletcher

Bob Baffert
New York State of Racing
Zipse At The Track

Tony Bada Bing:

Dating back to the early 19th century, the term dark horse found its way into common vernacular through the novel The Young Duke by English Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. In the telling of the story a horse race is watched, in which two favorites fail to win when a disregarded “dark horse” passes them on the way to victory. Not surprising with the author’s political background, dark horse has been far more commonly used for unknowns aspiring to higher office. The most famous among them, was probably Abraham Lincoln, who went from presidential outsider to Republican candidate in only a few short months.


Back to the future, as I consider who just may be the darkest horse vying for the 138 Kentucky Derby, my answer comes in a horse with a man’s name, his recently un-retired trainer, a former Bluegrass governor and horse breeder and the potential for the first female jockey to win the Run for the Roses. Somewhere an NBC executive is drooling over the prospect of this bay, not dark horse, making it to the Churchill staring gate on May 5 – the human-interest stories on this one entrant could fill an entire hour!


The horse, Mark Valeski, pronounced himself worthy of Derby consideration with a hard-fought, just-a-nose behind loss to heavily favored El Padrino in last month’s Risen Star Stakes. Mark Valeski got the jump on the favorite turning for home after following pacesetter, Hero of Order through average opening fractions. The two engaged in a side-by-side, ding-dong, stretch battle. Of the female jock aboard Mark Valeski, Rosie Napravnik, she claimed foul on El Padrino and his rider, Javier Castellano, but it was denied. Was this just a blip on the radar screen for a horse with a whole bunch of karma on its side? I say, no. 

Let’s start with former governor, now breeder Brereton Jones, who runs Aidrie Stud and bred our “dark horse” and…tried to sell him at Keenland’s auction. Unnamed at the time, no one at Lexington wanted the son of Proud Citizen for the $22,000 reserve. Jones brought him home and named him after a family member or life-long friend? No, it’s the pool guy at a hotel the Jones visits every year in Miami Beach, who owns the moniker - Mark Valeski.

Had enough? Mark Valeski’s trainer, Larry Jones, had much success in the Thoroughbred business that culminated with his big filly, Eight Belles, running in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Eight Belles finished second behind Big Brown and then infamously broke down. It went from tragedy to infamy, quickly with PETA banging down the doors of any media outlet willing to listen about how the Thoroughbred industry was cruel and unusual. Jones had enough, retired for a bit before returning last year, leading his top mare, Havre de Grace to Horse of the Year honors.

Last and certainly not least, every dark horse needs someone steering the ship and Mark Valeski has the top female jockey in the country – at least if we’re counting wins. The 24-year-old Rosie Napravnik was top jock at the old Fair Grounds last year after notching a few riding titles on the Maryland circuit. She rode Pants on Fire to a ninth place finish in last year’s Kentucky Derby and just missed the Kentucky Oaks on St. John’s River. The young lady drops the odds on any horse she rides in the Big Easy, but is less than a familiar face outside those in the horse racing “know.”

I only know a little about the sport I love and am willing to gamble on. But I do know this, 38-1 in last week’s Kentucky Derby Future Pool 2 may prove to be a steal, if Mark Valeski takes down the Louisiana Stakes later this month. All he has to do is be a nose better and my dark horse will find himself on the inside track for Kentucky Derby.

Brian Zipse:

Tony Bada Bing! Dropping some English history and literature on HRN! The reference may be nearly two hundred years old, but it’s still as popular today as ever with everyone who follows the horses. Case in point, our friend, Chris Sorenson … the original Chicago Dark Horse! We all want to be the one who picks that special longshot that wins the big race and lights up the tote board. I know I do, and what better race to tab such a horse than the Kentucky Derby? Each year I like to throw down a few dollars early in the year on my favorite dark horse. Most don’t even make the Derby, like Wasatch, Second of June, or Ron the Greek. But every once in a while there is the Giacomo, that makes it all worthwhile.

This year my Kentucky Derby dark horse for some time has been Empire Way, but I fear that may be about to change. No, not my fondness for the well-bred three-year-old in the Mike Harrington barn, but rather it may be soon too late to get him at dark horse type odds. Let go at a juicy 37-1 in this past weekend’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager, Empire Way will be one of many interesting young Californians hoping for a big performance in Saturday’s San Felipe. If he finishes like I expect him to, this dark horse will start loading up his bandwagon.

Mark Valeski ran a strong race in the Risen Star, but I am looking for a horse that will really want the ten furlongs of the Kentucky Derby, and Empire Way fits the bill. Bred to run all day, he is a full brother to last year’s champion 3yo filly, Royal Delta. Remember last summer when we were all looking for a sophomore filly to announce herself as the head of the class, it was Royal Delta who exploded away from the field in the prestigious Alabama Stakes. The Alabama was Royal Delta’s first and only race to date at 1 ¼ miles. Now I can’t be sure yet if Empire Way will be as good as his champion sister, but I do know that distance will not be a problem.

LOL … the pool guy. Good for Jones! But now back to business. After winning his debut impressively, Empire Way has finished 6th, 5th, and 2nd in successive graded stakes. This tells me his connections knew all along that they had a good one, so there was no need to work through his conditions. It also tells me that he’s improving, and further investigation shows that things have not gone his way yet, such as in his last race when he rallied into a pace where the leader was able to sprint home. A tough spot for a closer, and Empire Way was the only one able to gain any ground.

Harrington has not yet won the big races that Jones has, but he is a good horseman, and has two really good potential Derby horses this year in Creative Cause and Empire Way. While the former has received most of the attention for his juvenile exploits, the Run for the Roses is often won by the late developer who peaks in the spring. Given that Empire Way is a horse that was good enough to win at first asking and then has improved with each successive stakes start, I believe he is still on the path to improvement, setting him up perfectly for a big race in about eight weeks.


I must admit, seeing Rosie win the Derby would be great, but in the end, she will need the horse to do the real heavy lifting. Is Mark Valeski that horse? I need to see more. As I need to see more from Empire Way … I guess that is why they are still called dark horses. Or maybe it is because one horse needs to run longer, and on a track that is not so favoring to speed horses. That’s right, Empire Way has been swimming upstream his entire career. He strikes me as a horse that will love the conditions of the Derby.


You have a 38-1 shot, and I have a 37-1 shot … Nice how that worked out. Of course these odds do not mean a thing unless the horse actually comes through on the first Saturday in May. For the reasons I’ve outlined above, I like my chances to cash the ticket better than yours, Mr. Bada Bing.

 See where your favorites rank in HRN's Kentucky Derby 2012 Contenders!

Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to HRN, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing webcast HorseCenter, and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves on the Board of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars and is a Vox Populi committee member. He is a voter for racing's Hall of Fame, as well as a weekly NTRA poll voter. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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