Derby notes: See the latest on the contenders at Churchill Downs

Derby notes: See the latest on the contenders at Churchill Downs
Photo: Carolyn Greer

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Mark Schwartz’s Brooklyn Strong made his first appearance on the track at Churchill Downs Thursday morning, galloping a mile and a half over sloppy conditions caused by heavy overnight rains.

Steady rain was forecast all morning, but other than a few sprinkles during training hours everyone got their morning activity done before the precipitation began with interest at 9:15.

BOURBONIC, DYNAMIC ONE, KNOWN AGENDA, SAINTHOOD – Trainer Todd Pletcher had weather concerns Thursday morning with a sizable rain storm projected to reappear at Churchill Downs in the 7 a.m. hour. So rather than wait for the 7:30-7:45 Derby/Oaks special training period as he had been doing in previous days with his Derby foursome, he got them going early.

At 6 o’clock, he brought out Known Agenda (with exercise rider Hector Ramos in the tack) along with stablemate Dynamic One (with Carlos Perez Quevedo up) and the pair proceeded to gallop nine furlongs over a muddy strip. Twenty minutes later he had Bourbonic (with Ramos aboard) and Sainthood (handled by Amelia Green) trackside for a similar gallop and a quick return to the cozy confines of Barn 42.

“We’re expecting rain around 7 so we wanted to get ahead of it,” the conditioner said. “We kept it simple out there today; get them out, get them around, get them back home safe.”

It worked just fine for his quartet.  They got their exercise, they stayed dry and so did their riders and trainer.

BROOKLYN STRONG – The Cinderella story of this year’s Kentucky Derby could be that of Mark Schwartz’s Brooklyn Strong, a $5,000 purchase who is getting into the 20-horse field by virtue of the 10 points he earned with his upset victory in the Remsen Stakes (G2) last December at Aqueduct. Among the horses he beat that day was eventual Florida Derby (G1) winner and fellow Derby hopeful Known Agenda.

Brooklyn Strong, trained by 37-year-old former jockey Danny Velazquez, began his career by winning a $40,000 maiden claiming race at Delaware Park in his debut and then quickly moved up the ranks. In his second start, he finished third in the Bertram F. Bongard Stakes for New York-breds at Belmont. That was followed by back to back wins in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes, also for New York-breds, and the Remsen. In his lone start this year, he was fifth in the Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) April 3.

“I’m just excited to be here,” Velazquez said. “Like I’m telling everyone, I have zero pressure. This is a lifelong dream. I was at the OBS sale last weekend and we decided to work him Monday. We were thinking Preakness, but then my partner (owner) Mark (Schwartz) told me we could maybe get in the Derby. I think Churchill called him and said we could enter the Pat Day Mile and AE for the Derby. Then on Sunday they called and said we were in. It’s been crazy, been chaotic. I’ve had no sleep.

“It’s been extremely hard with him. Nothing has been easy with him. It’s been an up and down winter with him. He got a little sick on me. I’m not shocked this happened, but it’s a bit ironic because of how tough things have been. I’m very happy with him. He settled in well and hasn’t stopped eating.”

Brooklyn Strong, who arrived early Tuesday morning, galloped for the first time over the Churchill Downs track Thursday morning. Depending on the weather, Velazquez hoped to school in the paddock Thursday during the races.

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ESSENTIAL QUALITY, MANDALOUN – Godolphin’s Essential Quality and Juddmonte’s Mandaloun visited the starting gate prior to galloping about 1 5/8 miles.

Trainer Brad Cox watched from his usual perch from the second floor window of the five-eighths clocker stand.

“The serious work is over, now the fun begins,” Cox said.

The duo will train at 5:15 a.m. Friday.

HELIUM, SOUP AND SANDWICH – Mark Casse was on the backstretch for the first time Thursday morning to oversee the training of D J Stable’s Helium and Live Oak Plantation’s homebred Soup and Sandwich. Assistant David Carroll had put both horses through their final preparations before Casse’s arrival, and, instead of galloping, the big boss opted to split the difference and jog, as opposed to simply walking the shedrow.

“The track was muddy today and under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t have trained today and given them today off,” Casse said. “So, the next best thing was to go out and jog.     We’re ready to go, we’re happy with where they’re at and we’re as good as we can get. They’re happy and healthy and we’re just trying to maintain that. Training horses is like climbing a mountain; a lot of times the climb up to the top is the toughest part, and once you get there, you can relax a little.”

HIDDEN STASH – BBN Racing’s Hidden Stash jogged a mile at 7:30 a.m. with trainer Vicki Oliver aboard.

“I went out there earlier and it was pretty soupy so he just jogged,” Oliver said. “At this stage, it is not going to make any difference.”

Hidden Stash closed his 2020 campaign with an allowance win at Churchill Downs before re-emerging at Tampa Bay Downs with a third-place finish in the Sam F. Davis (G3) and a runner-up finish in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2). In his final prep for the Derby, he was fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland.

“All of the owners after the Blue Grass agreed that if he had a chance to get in the Derby go for it,” Oliver said. “It was in the back of our minds, but when it looked like he was getting in, it moved to the front.”

Oliver will be saddling her first Kentucky Derby starter, but she has a family link to a previous winner.

“The first Derby to stand out to me was Genuine Risk in 1980 when I was 8,” Oliver said. “My mom (Mrs. G. Watts Humphrey Jr.) bred her. Then Spend a Buck going wire to wire in 1985; that sticks out.”    

HIGHLY MOTIVATED – Klaravich Stables’ Highly Motivated jogged Thursday morning, as trainer Chad Brown opted to call a bit of an audible over the sloppy main track. The son of Into Mischief jogged once around for Brown, a former assistant to the legendary Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel.

“I generally don’t gallop over sealed tracks, and my mentor didn’t either,” Brown said. “It’s so close now, and he’s doing so well, I played it safe. The track should be good and harrowed tomorrow so I’ll go back to galloping.”

HOT ROD CHARLIE – “I’m happy with him. In fact, I’m very happy.”

Even on a bad day, it doesn’t take much to get trainer Doug O’Neill to sing the praises of one of his horses. He’s more than a glass half-full guy; he’s a glass-overflowing type.

But this week when he’s talked about his latest Kentucky Derby hopeful – the Oxbow colt Hot Rod Charlie – there seems to be an extra lilt in his voice and a wider smile on his face at the mention of the dark bay youngster’s name.

Certainly, the “bargain” $110,000 yearling buy has given his conditioner cause. When a young horse puts a million dollars in the bank after just seven starts, there’s reason to break out the smiles. When he’s been stakes-placed twice, then a stakes winner in three battles with graded company, that’s a grinner, too. And when you note that his stakes efforts have all been around two turns – the most recent providing a smart tally at a mile and three sixteenths – it gives one a warm and fuzzy feeling that his mile and one-quarter testing this coming Saturday appears to be right up his proverbial alley.

Thursday morning – during the 7:30-7:45 special Derby/Oaks training period – the conditioner was trackside with a contingent of his believers to watch their hope skip through a mile and a quarter gallop with regular exercise rider Jonny Garcia enjoying the exercise. It was another constructive step along the road to red roses and more high fives than you can shake a stick at.

O’Neill said his colt would gallop again Friday, then walk the shedrow race day.

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KEEPMEINMIND – Keepmeinmind was among the very first Kentucky Derby prospects on the track Thursday morning, galloping 1 ½ miles at his usual 5:30 a.m. time.

While the 2020 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) winner is a considered a 50-1 outsider for the Kentucky Derby after two poor performances this year in the Rebel (G2) and Blue Grass (G2) Stakes, his trainer Robertino Diodoro and jockey David Cohen have not lost faith in the horse. This will be the first Kentucky Derby for both of them.

“He’s really developed into a tremendous 3-year-old year,” Cohen said. “I know his PP’s don’t show it, but he’s grown from two to three the way we’ve wanted. He’s been more aggressive this year and I think that’s partly because of the blinkers. We’re taking them off for Saturday. I’m just going to let him fall out of the gate, relax and make one run. I think the big field will actually help him. When he sees daylight, he gets aggressive. He likes to be covered up early.”

KING FURY – A couple of heavyweights are going to meet for the first time Saturday at trainer Kenny McPeek’s barn at Churchill Downs.

World heavyweight champion Tyson Fury took up McPeek’s offer to be in the corner for Fern Circle Stables, Three Chimneys Farm and Magdalena Racing’s King Fury, who spars with the heavyweight of 3-year-old colts, undefeated Essential Quality, in Kentucky Derby 147. Fury, who is training in Las Vegas, will fly in early Saturday to watch the horse, a 20-1 shot with Brian Hernandez Jr. riding, that was named in his honor.

This deal came together a lot faster than most boxing matches, starting with a social media exchange Tuesday and finalized Wednesday.

“Tyson Fury is coming, along with (boxing promoter) Bob Arum,” said McPeek, “Along with some others from Top Rank Boxing. I had tagged (Fury) on Twitter, and his agent called me yesterday and asked, ‘Are you serious?’ And I told him yeah, c’mon, it’ll be fun. So he’s flying in Saturday. He’s going do some Muhammad Ali stuff, too, while he’s here.”

McPeek said Fury was not aware that the colt was named for him. “I named the horse … I enjoyed the fight when he went into the fight with (Deontay) Wilder (in February 2020). When you’re naming stallions, you want to name them something strong, and I thought it was ideal, and of course he’s a good horse.”

Plans call for Fury to meet King Fury at the barn, and for the fighter to walk over before the race to the paddock in his entourage. “He likes horse racing,” McPeek said. “He’s from Manchester, England, and evidently he’s been to the races over there, and likes the races. I don’t think he’s done anything in American racing. But how many times do you get to have the heavyweight champ come over?”

“It’s always something I've been interested in, the biggest horse race in the world,” Fury told ESPN. “I’ve always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby, never had the opportunity to do so. This is the opportunity to do so.”

Arum, who’s now 89, is a promoter and for a time was part of the Main Bout company operated by Ali, the late Louisville native who is considered the greatest boxing champion of all time. Ali is buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, and the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville is a museum and activities center that recognizes his life.

“I like having fun. We all take it so seriously, everybody so uptight, this is as relaxed as I’ve ever been coming into an Oaks or a Derby,” said McPeek, who told Fury on Twitter to contact him by direct message, which started the ball rolling for a VIP visit by the boxer. “We’ve got two horses who are training good, and the rest is up to a higher power.”

On the track Thursday morning, King Fury repeated the usual routine called for by McPeek. During the period reserved for Kentucky Derby and Oaks horses, the winner of the Lexington (GIII) at Keeneland was sent for a maintenance 1 ½-mile gallop with exercise rider Lalo Jose Quiroz aboard on the sealed racing surface.

LIKE THE KING – M Racing Group’s Like the King jogged a mile alongside a pony with jockey Drayden Van Dyke aboard for trainer Wesley Ward.

Van Dyke, a 26-year-old Louisville native, will be aboard Saturday with his third Kentucky Derby mount.

His most vivid memory of the Derby came when he was 14.

“The first Derby I remember here was Mine That Bird,” Van Dyke said of the 2009 Run for the Roses. “I watch that ride by Calvin (Borel). I still go back and watch it. That is what sticks with me. I think it is one of the best rides in Derby history so far.”

Unlike his previous two mounts, Van Dyke will be aboard a horse he rode in its most recent start prior to the Derby.

“I feel like this is my best chance,” said Van Dyke, who was aboard for Like the King’s victory in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park on March 27.

“He is very professional and has lots of talent. He idled when he got to the front (in the Jeff Ruby) and I knew I had more in the tank. I know he is a fighter.”

Blake Heap accompanied Like the King to the track on the pony and he will be overseeing the colt’s preparations this week for Ward. Heap saddled Averly Jane to victory in Wednesday afternoon’s Kentucky Juvenile to give Ward his 1,997th career victory.

Ward has two horses entered today -- one at Churchill Downs and one at Belmont Park -- then three more here Friday and four more here in addition to Like the King on Derby Day.

MEDINA SPIRIT – Zedan Racing Stables’ Medina Spirit was led out to the track by assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes at the special 7:30 a.m. Derby/Oaks training time and put in the same strong gallop he has all week for exercise rider Humberto Gomez.

Hall of Trainer Bob Baffert has given the riding assignment to jockey John Velazquez, who was aboard Baffert’s sixth Derby winner Authentic last year. A win would be a record seventh for Baffert and a fourth for Velazquez.

“Johnny is a really good rider,” Baffert said. “The thing I like about him, his strength, is that he’s an exceptionally good gate rider. A good speed rider and my horse is a speed horse.  He’ll keep him out of trouble. That’s what Medina has going for him, he’s very fast out of the gate. When you have 20 horses, that is the key.”

MIDNIGHT BOURBON, SUPER STOCK – Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon and Erv Woolsey’s and trainer Steve Asmussen’s father Keith’s Super Stock both stretched their legs over the muddy main track Thursday morning in a pair of light gallops, with the former standing in the starting gate as well. An energized Midnight Bourbon also schooled in the paddock prior to Wednesday’s fifth race, with Asmussen handling the son of Tiznow.

O BESOS – Bernard Racing, Tagg Team Racing, West Point Thoroughbreds and Terry L. Stephens’ O Besos jogged one mile around 6:15 a.m. Thursday.

ROCK YOUR WORLD – Trainer John Sadler is a California boy so you’d probably be right to guess that he’s not exactly an expert when it comes to dealing with rain. But Thursday morning at Churchill Downs he gave the impression he was an old hand with the elements.

The word – and the weatherman – said the next part of an overnight storm in Louisville was going to hit at 7 a.m. Several horsemen heeded that advice and moved their horses’ exercises up to the 6 a.m. hour.  Sadler preferred to stay with the 7:30-7:45 slot that was reserved only for Derby/Oaks horses, the big advantage to that being that just a few horses were on the track at that time rather than the dozens and dozens that can appear during any other training period.

Then the rain held off and Rock Your World, the Candy Ride colt the conditioner brought from California for his shot at the Kentucky Derby, got to get in his prep work with no crowd around him and no rain falling on his handsome dark bay coat.

Regular exercise rider Javier Meza was at the controls and together he and his partner went through a solid mile and one-quarter gallop.

“Just a straight forward, routine gallop,” Sadler said afterward at Barn 43. “I’m happy with him and that the rain held off and we didn’t get poured on.”

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