Undefeated Shirl's Speight a late entry to Kentucky Derby picture

Undefeated Shirl's Speight a late entry to Kentucky Derby picture
Photo: Michael Burns

There are a bunch of “ifs” that still have to fall into place. But in a unique year for the Kentucky Derby (G1), the latest of late bloomers to run for the roses could be coming out of Canada.

Unraced until July 4, Shirl’s Speight has crashed the 3-year-olds’ party with two wins this month by a combined 10 3/4 lengths on two different surfaces at Woodbine. His victory on the synthetic dirt Saturday in the Marine Stakes (G3) may have steeled owner Charles Fipke’s desire to spend Labor Day weekend at Churchill Downs.

“He would definitely like to do that,” Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield said with a laugh. “I’m a little bit more conservative. But the owner is an extreme optimist and very successful at what he usually does. It has been mentioned.”

It also has been mentioned among bookmakers. After Saturday’s victory, Shirl’s Speight opened at a ludicrously short 20-1 in the Kentucky Derby futures at bet365 in England. Circa Sports in Las Vegas followed suit more aggressively, posting him Wednesday morning at 100-1. The success of any futures bet on the Fipke homebred depends first on the Derby being undersubscribed, a notion that has been gaining traction in recent weeks.

Fipke and Attfield had lofty expectations long ago for Shirl’s Speight, a colt sired by 2004 U.S. sprint champion Speightstown. In February he was one of the 347 original nominees for the Triple Crown. The only problem then was that he was not ready to race.

“We’ve been very high on him since we got him as a 2-year-old last year,” Attfield said by telephone Wednesday morning from Toronto. “I had to stop down on him last summer when he got jarred up with bone bruising. I was looking forward to getting him back this year.”

Five breezes in June convinced Attfield that Shirl’s Speight was finally ready. Then Shirl’s Speight convinced Attfield that he was more than that, winning a seven-furlong maiden turf race by eight lengths under a front-running hand ride by Rafael Hernández. His winning time of 1:19.97 earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 88.

“I don’t think he really even knew he was in a race,” Attfield said. “He really didn’t gain any education on that one at all.”

It was a different trip Saturday on the Tapeta surface in the 8 1/2-furlong Marine. Hernández kept Shirl’s Speight in stalking position behind Gotham Stakes winner Untitled before pushing the button in the turn. Another hand ride turned into a 2 3/4-length win that got him a 91 Beyer and paid off for bettors who made him only slightly more than an even-money favorite.

“He had to settle down and rate, which was nice to see,” Attfield said. “He had to get himself into a situation where eventually he waited and relaxed, and then he just kicked on. He gained a little bit of experience there. But not a whole lot yet.”

Although he speaks cautiously when the Derby comes up, Attfield has mapped it into the workout strategy for Shirl’s Speight. He plans to put him on Woodbine’s dirt track for a workout in about 10 days. Then he and Fipke will decide where to go next. The alternatives mentioned include the Virginia Derby (G3) Sept. 1, the Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga on Sept. 5, the Pat Day Mile (G2) on the Derby undercard at Churchill Downs or, as Attfield put it, “he could run against older horses here at Woodbine.”

If travel over the U.S.-Canada border is in the plans, pandemic complications still have to be worked out.

“We can’t send along help with the horse – or myself, either,” Attfield said. “You’re going to be in quarantine when you come back here. It’s not easy, and it would be very inconvenient. But we would do that for him, I’m sure.”

Even more out of control for Shirl’s Speight’s connections is whether the Derby field fills with horses that earned points in prep races. There are 49 active horses with at least one point and the right of first refusal; 40 are Triple Crown nominees. If half of them enter the Derby, then Shirl’s Speight would be left out even if Fipke and Attfield wanted to go.

Since the 3-year-old crop is less of a mystery now than it would have been before a May 2 Derby, plenty of horsemen might already have eliminated their horses from consideration – points or no points.

“There’s still some other races coming up that might thin it out even more,” Attfield said. “But that’s horse racing. It’s a day-to-day thing.”

A native of England who is in both the U.S. and Canada racing halls of fame, Attfield, 80, has a long list of achievements that include eight Sovereign Awards as Canada’s best trainer and a Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf victory in 2011 with Perfect Shirl, the dam of Shirl’s Speight. In 1995, he got to the Derby and finished 12th with Canadian-bred Talkin Man.

But how about taking a colt that had never raced before the 4th of July and having him make his dirt debut in America’s biggest race?

“Well, if I did that,” Attfield said, “I know for a fact it would be a record.”

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