Kelly Breen made his first trip to New Orleans this January. He felt right at home when he saddled Pants On Fire to a narrow miss behind Wilkinson in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes, and his return in February resulted in a runner-up finish for Sleepless Knight in the Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap. Although Pants On Fire ran a disappointing sixth in the Grade II Risen Star during that second visit, the New Jersey native is back in search of victory this weekend at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots.
The best cure for a case of ‘seconditis,’ Breen has decided, is to bring more horses. In Saturday’s $1 million Louisiana Derby, he’ll send out a freshened Pants On Fire accompanied by lightly-raced stablemate Nacho Business, a Rahy colt making only the third start of his career. Both runners start in the colors of George and Lori Hall; since Breen is a private trainer for the couple, only horses owned by them make up his string.
“I’ve always been high on Nacho Business,” the affable horseman said Thursday morning after taking both of his Louisiana Derby contenders out for a gallop around the Fair Grounds oval. “We liked him as a 2-year-old but he had some shin issues and a little problem with his right front foot that cost us about a month of training on him. Everything’s good now; he showed up in his first race at Gulfstream and it’s tough to get a horse to win first time out there.”
Before turning up with the small puncture wound in his hoof wall that caused the delay in his training, Nacho Business was serving as a workmate for another promising colt formerly trained by Breen, Holy Bull runner-up Sweet Ducky. That son of Pulpit was recently sold to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and will start in the $2 million UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup program this Saturday at Meydan.
“That horse is so talented, I don’t think you’ve gotten to see the best of Sweet Ducky yet,” Breen said. “He was perfectly sound; we never had an issue with him. That’s the part you miss, knowing he’s going to get better. But it’s part of the business that it is a business, and when you can take a profit you do, and that makes some of the mistakes you’ve made or horses that might have gotten hurt a little bit easier pill to swallow.”
According to Breen, Nacho Business is about three months behind in scheduled training but has been coming along well since a runner-up finish in his second start, a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Gulfstream on Feb. 26. Joe Bravo was in the saddle for both of the colt’s previous starts.
“This is a really talented 3-year-old coming up,” the jockey said. “Yes, he only has two starts. Yes, he’s immature. But he’s really got a lot of talent and deserves a shot against the big ones. There’s no million-dollar race that’s easy, but this is what he has to try if he wants to make it to the first Saturday in May.”
“He used to work head-and-head with Sweet Ducky easily,” Breen recalled. “Seeing Sweet Ducky progress to the horse we thought he could be and knowing this one kept up with him, it’s a nice feeling to have. Now we have to see what level he’s at, and is he going to make the jump to the top level of 3-year-olds? We always thought he could be a top horse, and maybe we’re asking a lot of him for his third race, but we’re hoping we can get him to that level.”
Nacho Business may benefit from the presence of his stablemate in the Louisiana Derby. Pants On Fire, a Jump Start colt, is a known speedster whose best finishes have come on the front end. He exited the Risen Star with a lung infection that surfaced when he returned to Breen’s winter base in Florida, but the trainer said he’s recovered from the illness that could have impacted his finish last time out.
“We don’t know, was he carrying a bug going into the race?” he said. “We scoped him after and there was a little bit of something there, and when we got him back to Florida it all came out. He got sick and he just wasn’t right, but in the last 10 days he’s been starting to flourish. He’s bright, he’s eating everything, and he looks dynamite. Maybe he did have an excuse in his last race, and we did try to rate him as well. He just didn’t have that finishing kick.”
Pants On Fire has been on antibiotics to clear up the infection and has recovered well. He could set up the pace for Nacho Business, a known closer, or, if unpressured, could find the winner’s circle on his own.
“I don’t like to give horses excuses, but if he wasn’t feeling one hundred percent last time, then maybe we have one,” Breen remarked. “Now it’s just a matter of if he’s going to be good enough.”
One of Breen’s best at being good enough is Grade II $400,000 Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial Handicap contender Sleepless Knight. The 5-year-old War Chant runner got pinned in down on the rail in the Fair Grounds Handicap, came running late after swinging out at the sixteenth pole, and missed by a head to winner Expansion.
“He’s really doing well,” the trainer said. “It’s been a little unfortunate that things have happened where he hasn’t run a bunch of times back to back. I think this is going to be the first time he’s run that many races in a row without something going wrong, knock on wood. Right now, he’s in a happy place.”
Asked to define what “happy place” meant, Breen smiled.
“Sometimes you have horses that go through highs and lows, and I thought during the late fall that he was doing well, but I think he was still just getting fit,” he said. “Right now he’s at a point where I’ve never seen him before. I’ve never had him with this many races in a row, doing things so easily and so yet fast. He’s really impressive right now and he’s a horse that you root for so much, because he gives his all every time. He’s just about as hard a knocker as we have.”
Rounding out Breen’s arsenal is a maiden daughter of A.P. Indy entered in the 12th on Saturday. Indy Annestesia ran fifth going a mile in her Feb. 16 debut at Gulfstream Park, but the trainer wants to stretch her out around two turns.
“The problem we had at Gulfstream was that we really wanted to get her to go two turns after her first race, and the mile-and-an-eighth race didn’t go,” Breen explained. “We were coming here, she’s been training well, so we put her on the van. I really like her and think she has the potential of turning out to be a nice horse. She’s going to race with blinkers on because she didn’t show the speed in the afternoon that she does in the mornings. I’m anticipating a nice race out of her.”
As if that weren’t enough action, Breen has two other 3-year-old contenders to run in a Kentucky Derby prep this weekend – Nacho Saint and Ruler on Ice will start in the Sunland Park Derby on Sunday.
“We’re trying to create our own destiny,” the trainer said. “If we don’t have good enough horses, we don’t have good enough horses – but we’re sure as hell gonna try.”