Ky. Derby Trail: Cho, Mo, and Go Show

Uncle Mo’s long-awaited 2011 debut has been discussed in detail in this week’s Derby Dozen, but we’ll touch on it further later on. For now, let’s go back to Jan. 17, 1990 at Santa Anita.

Bob Baffert was a newcomer to Thoroughbred racing, having been a leading trainer in Quarter-Horse racing. He was on the verge of switching over completely to Thoroughbreds and had his eye on a newly turned 3-year-old colt by Cox’s Ridge named Video Ranger, who his former Quarter-Horse idol D. Wayne Lukas had entered in a $40,000 maiden claiming race. Baffert strongly considered claiming the horse, even though he had finished 10th for $62,500 the previous September at Del Mar. It was obvious that Lukas was trying to get rid of him, stretching him out to 1 1/16 miles and dropping him down.

“I wanted to claim him, but I didn’t have the guts,” Baffert recalled. He then watched as Video Ranger romped by 13 lengths at odds of 10-1. Baffert found out that the horse had been claimed by someone named Myung Kwon Cho, a native North Korean who grew up in Seoul, South Korea and operated a clothing export business that he started shortly after arriving in the United States in 1978. Now here he was dabbling in Thoroughbred racing.

“I went down there after the race and offered him $50,000 for the horse and he goes ‘Oh, no, no, no…no sell,’” Baffert said.

Cho, who would eventually take out his trainer’s license and start breeding a few horses, raced Video Ranger with Ian Jory as trainer and the colt went on to finish second in the Bradbury Stakes before closing from far back to finish second in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) behind early Kentucky Derby (gr. I) favorite Mister Frisky at odds of 36-1. Cho then sent him to Churchill Downs for the Derby, and this time he closed from 14th to finish fourth at 65-1.

Since the claim of Video Ranger, Baffert, who has gone on to a Hall of Fame career, admits he has a hard time beating Cho.

“Mr. Cho, he’s great,” Baffert said. “I have trouble beating Mr. Cho. He’s always beating me and I keep telling him, ‘I can’t beat Cho.’ He loves it. Believe me he beats me more than I beat him. When I beat him in the San Vicente (gr. II) (with The Factor over Cho’s homebred Premier Pegasus) he came over to congratulate me and I said to him ‘I can’t believe I beat Cho.’”

Baffert’s success over Cho didn’t last long, as Premier Pegasus, stretching out to two turns for the first time and with blinkers off, demolished his field in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), with the Baffert-trained Awesome Patriot finishing sixth.

“After the race, I went down there and I was back to saying to him, ‘I can’t beat Cho,’ and he’s going, ‘I beat you. I beat you.’”

Cho has proven over the years he is willing to step far out of the box and run his horses in races where they appear to be in way over their head. His brazen moves have resulted in a third in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) with Critical Factor (who he also trained) at odds of 62-1; a third in the 1997 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) with the maiden Nationalore (a son of Video Ranger that he owned, trained, and bred) at odds of 40-1; and a third in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with Premier Pegasus’ half-brother Street Hero, winner of the grade I Norfolk Stakes, at odds of 6-1.

Cho, who spends a good deal of his time with his other business, has excellent help at the barn, where he has seven horses in training. He also has three broodmares at Hartwell Farm in Kentucky.

His assistant, Maria Ayala, runs the barn. “She does it all,” Baffert said. “The only time I see Mr. Cho is when he runs a horse.” There is also an assistant trainer, Rafael Martinez, who often saddles the horses and used to be Cho’s trainer before Cho took out his trainer’s license.

Cho’s 17-year-old son, Raxon (one of five children), is an aspiring trainer and is heavily involved with the running of the stable. After the San Felipe, he acted as interpreter for his father.

“I started interpreting for my dad when Street Hero was running, because that is when I really started getting into training and what horseracing really is about,” Raxon said. “My dad has always told me one day I would be the one talking to people for him because of his English, and now I really am. His English isn’t the best and he is uncomfortable with that, but I have talked with my dad enough that I can understand what he’s trying to say. It was awesome talking to the press, I was a little nervous, but I think that was mainly the adrenaline flowing through my body from the race.
“My dad and I talk about racing every day for an hour or two at dinner or whenever I finish my school work. Our discussions can be as brief as, ‘How are the horses?’or making big decisions, like where to run next or what jockey to use. He is an awesome teacher and I don’t think he’ll ever stop teaching me, because he believes in the idea that you learn something new every day.”

Premier Pegasus came highly regarded by Eugene Sipus Jr., who breaks Cho’s horses.

“We always thought there was something special about Premier Pegasus from the first pictures we received of him as a weanling,” Raxon said. “We expected great things from ‘PrePeg’ (his sire Fusaichi Pegasus was always referred to as FuPeg by the media) since the beginning, but we never thought he would win (the San Felipe) by such a large margin. Premier Pegasus is a great horse, he has so much class, and he is very smart. After losing the San Vicente (his first career defeat) he knows what his job is now; he learned a great deal from that race. Before the San Vicente it seemed that he never really tried his best. But after losing his attitude completely changed. He’s so smart. Whenever he’s tired he goes to sleep and he knows when its time to get up and go. I just think that Premier Pegasus is a special horse, and we hope that everything goes as planned and we are able to make our way to the Derby.”

As if Premier Pegasus wasn’t enough for one year, Cho also has another son of Fusaichi Pegasus named Riveting Reason, who was beaten a nose in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) in his last start. Last year, as a maiden, he finished third in the grade I Norfolk Stakes and Del Mar Futurity. Although he’s come from off the pace in all his races, he wound up leading the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile field to the top of the stretch, while stalked by Uncle Mo, before tiring. He ran a huge race in the Robert Lewis with the blinkers off and was just nipped on the wire by Anthony’s Cross.

Both colts are bred to run all day. Their sire won the Kentucky Derby, and Premier Pegasus’ broodmare sire, Summer Squall, won the Preakness (gr. I) and sired Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic. Premier Pegasus is inbred to the French mare Lavendula through the classy Ambiorix (a major stakes winner in France and top sire) and Source Sucree, the dam of Turn-to, who is the sire of Hail to Reason, First Landing, Sir Gaylord, and Cyane. Add Mahmoud, Buckpasser, and Shut Out in his first five (female) generations and you’re talking true class and stamina. You’re also talking the best of Windfields Farm, Greentree, C.V. Whitney, Phipps, and Meadow Stud.

Riveting Reason has as strong a tail-female family as you’ll find. His second dam, Rabiadella, is by Dynaformer, out of a Dr. Fager mare. Dynaformer is by Roberto, out of a His Majesty mare. Riveting Reason also is inbred 5x5 to Hail to Reason (through Halo and Roberto) and Rough ‘n Tumble (through Dr. Fager and My Dear Girl, dam of In Reality).

So, there is no doubt both horses are loaded with class and will relish a distance of ground.

“I remember Eugene sending us an e-mail saying that Premier Pegasus and Riveting Reason were both great horses,” Raxon said. “He said we would have a great future with these colts. Robby Lyons always gave us good reports about our foals and continues to do so, as well as Jun Park, my father’s bloodstock agent. 

“Riveting Reason just has been unlucky, and I think that he will win one soon. My dad believes he is a good horse, and he has always thought great things of him. As of right now we are not sure where either horse is going to run next. The races that have been talked about are the Santa Anita Derby and the Sunland Park Derby, as well as a couple of others. But we’re probably not going to run the two horses in the same race.”

Getting back to the San Felipe, it was a perfect setup for Premier Pegasus. By going two turns for the first time and without blinkers, he was able sit back in seventh, some eight lengths off the suicidal pace set by the battling Runflatout and Albergatti. When jockey Alonso Quinonez pushed the button on the far turn, the result was quick and devastating, as Premier Pegasus, who showed great speed last year, blew by the leaders as if they were standing still and in a flash was three in front. Even with the Baffert-trained Jaycito closing from last, Premier Pegasus still kept widening his lead, winning by 7 3/4 lengths in 1:41 1/5 for the 1 1/16 miles.

If both these colts continue to improve, you can bet there will be a lot of trainers joining Baffert in saying “I can’t beat Cho.”

Long lost Uncle returns

As we said in the Derby Dozen, Uncle Mo needed to get something out of this race, and  needed to come home fast off those slow fractions, and he did so and more with that stunning :22 4/5 final quarter under nothing more than a hand ride from John Velazquez. We would rather see a :25 2/5 opening quarter than a :22 2/5; would rather see a 1:36 2/5 mile than a 1:33 2/5; would rather he win by 3 3/4 lengths  than 13 3/4 lengths; and would rather see an 89 Beyer than a 109. So all in all this was a good first-out prep, especially getting slammed into hard at the start. And remember, there is hardly any run-up in mile races at Gulf, so the opening quarter is always slow. Combine that with the bumping and it wasn’t quite as slow as it seems This race showed he can relax early and fly home late, and he galloped out like a bear (I got him in 1:49 1/5 for the 1 1/8 miles).

The race played out like a workout, with a “workmate,” Rattlesnake Bridge, who definitely has a bright future, challenging him approaching the head of the stretch, just enough to get his blood up. If was a brief, but effective, challenge. The fractions also played out like a workout, with Uncle Mo going his first half in :49 3/5 and his last half in :46 4/5. That will help him in races where there is speed and he has to settle off the pace – not race off the pace, as he did in the BC Juvenile, but settle, as he will have to do in the Kentucky Derby.

Although a switch to the Florida Derby (gr. I) was mentioned as a possibility, it looks as if Uncle Mo will stick to his original plan and run in the Wood Memorial (gr. I).

If this was an animated movie, Stay Thirsty would be letting out with a big, “Whew” around now, saying, “Thank goodness I don’t have to go back to New York after just arriving back here.” As long as Uncle Mo rules the roost, Stay Thirsty will have to accept the fact that his schedule is based on what his illustrious stablemate does. But with a horse like Mo that comes with the territory. What Stay Thirsty doesn’t realize, however, is that by returning to Florida, he will be facing a pack of wolves in the Florida Derby (gr. I), while Mo will have a much easier task up in the Big Apple. But that also comes with the territory.

For Uncle Mo, it’s now time to really get serious. And for his sake, there better be some good horses that show up for the Wood. Play time is over and he has only one more opportunity to fill up his ammo pack before the big battle that lies ahead. You can’t bring a pistol with you to the Derby when most everyone else will be bringing a Howitzer. That is our war metaphor for the week.

Other Derby thoughts:

-- Jaycito will get blinkers back again after losing his focus a bit while apparently bored being at the back of the pack in the San Felipe. Despite the final margin, this was a solid effort, and showed he could handle the dirt, handle the turns without freaking out, as he did in the Breeders’ Cup, and overcome a wide trip and having to alter course in the stretch. Even if he finished second again in the Santa Anita Derby, and is much closer at the finish, he will be in good shape to peak on May 7. Remember, this is not a 1 1/6-mile horse. You shouldn’t see the best of him until he goes 1 1/4 miles.

-- Kudos to Comma to the Top, who chased the insane pace of :21 3/5 and :44 2/5 and still hung in there gamely to finish fourth, beaten three lengths for second, while the two kamikazes wound finishing last and next to last, beaten 33 1/2 and 37 lengths.

-- What can you say about the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) when you have a horse (Crimson Knight) coming out of a $16,000 claiming race and running his eyeballs out, getting beat a neck after putting away the 1-2 favorite Brethren. The winner, Watch Me Go, is a nice horse and ran a game race himself, but you can’t think this race produced a Derby winner unless Brethren makes some remarkable comeback. The favorite caved in to the pressure of Crimson Knight, but it must be said he was asked to do a lot, breaking from the outside post again and being rushed up to challenge for the lead, while going wide into the turn. He then wound up on a clear lead way too early down the backstretch and had little to offer when challenged by the winner. We’ll see what he’s got in his next race. At least give him a good post to show what he’s capable of.

Watch Me Go is trained by the vastly underrated Kathleen O'Connell, one of the top trainers in Florida. He's won four of his eight starts and improved dramatically off his third in the Sam F. Davis, and he's at least battle-tested. He did show some brilliance winning a 6 1/2-furlong allowance at Tampa by eight lengths two starts back and has continued to improve going two turns. He still has a long way to go to be placed up there with the leading 3-year-olds, but this at least was a good start.

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