Usually it is a breakthrough victory that defines a racehorse. Maybe the turn of foot in the stretch or the bob of the head at the wire in the biggest of events.
That was not the case for Art Collector.
His 3 1/2-length victory over party-crashing filly Swiss Skydiver in Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes (G2) might have assured him a place in the Kentucky Derby. It certainly made him one of the four shortest-priced horses in futures betting.
But his defining race almost went completely wrong.
“I thought he had hurt himself,” said his jockey, Brian Hernandez Jr. “I was going to pull him up.”
That was last Nov. 9 at Churchill Downs, where Art Collector was making his first start on the dirt after going 1-for-3 on the turf. It was a 6 1/2-furlong $75,000 allowance race for 2-year-old non-winners of more than one.
Churning along near the inside, something clearly went wrong early in the turn. The archived race video showed that Hernandez stopped scrubbing.
“He got knocked around a couple times, and for some reason he must have just crossed his legs,” Hernandez said.
For a moment or two it looked like he conceded the race. Art Collector was having none of it.
“We went about another sixteenth of a mile,” Hernandez said. “I checked him, and he felt fine.”
“All of a sudden the horse went way to the outside and started running again,” his owner Bruce Lunsford said.
“I asked him to make another run from the 3/16 pole home,” Hernandez said. “He actually closed a lot of ground.”
Finishing sixth, he wound up within 4 1/2 lengths of the winner despite a Trakus readout that showed him covering 25 more feet to get even that close. Compromised by what the Equibase chart caller described as “lost action,” Art Collector still peaked at 42.8 mph, only 0.1 behind the best speed in the race.
“I said this horse may be pretty good if he gets a good trip,” Lunsford said. “From there it’s been all been upside.”
But a 7 1/2-length sprint allowance victory three weeks later in the slop at Churchill was wiped out by a positive drug test that led Art Collector to be taken from trainer Joe Sharp.
As has been well chronicled, Lunsford sent his home-bred colt to Tommy Drury, who might as well have been given the “interim” tag. But Art Collector came back from his nearly six-month break to win another sprint allowance May 17 at Churchill – and win Drury his audition.
In a phone interview from Kentucky on Monday morning, Hernandez added a few more layers to the story of how Drury held onto the horse – and how Hernandez held onto the ride.
“Tommy does a lot of leg-ups,” he said, referring to getting a horse getting a break at the farm. “But he wasn’t going to get to keep him. The horse was supposed to go to Rusty Arnold. When I got back here in March from New Orleans, Tommy called me and he said, ‘Hey, Art Collector is ready to start working. Why don’t you come out and work him?’ We went out there and worked him a couple of times.
“It just so happened with all the COVID stuff, Bruce told Tommy to just go ahead and run one time at Churchill. That was the allowance. After he won so impressively, Bruce said, ‘You’ve done such a good job with this horse, go ahead and keep him.’ ”
The results only got more impressive. In his two-turn debut, Art Collector won by 6 1/2 lengths in another Churchill allowance, this time covering 8 1/2 furlongs and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 100 that was revised Monday to 102.
Where that race showed that Art Collector could win from the lead setting a slow pace, his Blue Grass Stakes victory Saturday offered a snapshot of his stalking ability. He also painted a multicolor mural of his tenacity in pulling away from Swiss Skydiver, who had Hernandez’s attention in the homestretch.
“She kept throwing her ears up back and forth, and I thought, ‘Oh, man, we’re going to really have to ask our horse to run today,’ ” Hernandez said. “I was a little worried that she might get away. But when he didn’t let her, I thought he’d be able to out-grind her. He jumped back to his left lead late, but I think that was just because it was his first time going a mile-and-an-eighth and his first time facing those kinds of horses.”
Calling him “intelligent” and “very athletic,” Hernandez said Art Collector needs a few days of rest before Drury knows how much Saturday’s race took out of him. Drury said that next month’s Ellis Park Derby is a possibility. But he and Lunsford also said that Art Collector might just train right up to the big day Sept. 5.
“You’ve got to think that we’ve got one of the better 3-year-olds right now,” Hernandez said. “Tiz The Law, he’s No. 1. Then you’ve got (Honor A. P.) that won the Santa Anita Derby; he looked impressive. Our horse we think proved on Saturday that he’s one of the top horses in the country right now. He’s one of the late-developing 3-year-olds jumping on the scene, and I’m sure we’ll see a couple more.”
Although the Derby trail is new to Drury and Lunsford, Hernandez has been there twice. Four years ago, he finished 12th on 49-1 long shot Tom’s Ready, a horse that proved to be better suited to shorter distances. Then three years ago, riding 6-1 fourth choice McCraken, he got caught in a bottleneck at the start and finished an empty eighth.
Résumé aside, Hernandez sold Lunsford with the way he handled Art Collector on that clunker of a turn last fall at Churchill Downs.
“Brian doesn’t rattle,” Lunsford said. “He’s cool as a cucumber. I’ve gotten to watch him work in the morning. Brian has worked the horse just like he rides the horse (in races). He knows what he does.”
Now Hernandez gets a horse that seems ready to go 1 1/4 miles and battle – truly battle – for the roses.
“Everybody associates horse racing with the Kentucky Derby,” said Hernandez, who at 34 is nearly half his lifetime removed from his Eclipse Award as the country’s best apprentice jockey. “Just being able to participate in the Derby is huge. If you ever do get a chance to win it, of course, it’s going to be a huge accomplishment for anyone. That’s why we get up every morning at 5 a.m. It’s because we look for these kinds of Derby horses that get you to interviews like this.”