Last year at this time, Team Valor International was as close to winning the Kentucky Derby as the Indianapolis Colts were to winning the 2012 Super Bowl. Their three top 3-year-olds were all grass and/or synthetic horses, two of whom hadn't even started at 3. The other, Crimson China, had won an allowance/optional claimer on grass in his U.S. debut at Gulfstream, having previously raced twice in England.
The only one of the three that had even run on dirt was Pluck, who was beaten nearly 13 lengths in his career debut in the mud at Belmont Park.
By mid-March, Pluck, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, had finished fourth in a Tampa Bay allowance race on grass at 1-5 and Animal Kingdom had finished second in an allowance/optional claimer on grass at 5-2. The plan was to run Crimson China in the grade III Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes on Polytrack at Turfway to try to earn graded stakes money in case the Kentucky Derby became a viable option, and Animal Kingdom, who was not quite as advanced as Crimson China, in the non-graded Rushaway Stakes on the same card. At that point, it looked as if Team Valor’s only shot of making the Derby was with their European import Crimson China, the only one of the three they didn’t breed.
But fate has a way of intervening on the Derby trail. As it turned out, Crimson China did not have sufficient career earnings to make the Spiral field, which was limited to 12 starters. While he just missed out by a few thousand dollars, Animal Kingdom did have enough to get in the race, by a few thousand dollars, and Team Valor and trainer Graham Motion switched places with their two horses, running Animal Kingdom in the Spiral and Crimson China in the Rushaway. That also altered future plans for both colts. Animal Kingdom was supposed to come back in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) following the Rushaway, but after winning the Spiral impressively by nearly three lengths, it was decided to send him straight to the Derby off a six-week layoff, even though no horse had won the Derby off that long a layoff in 55 years and only one horse (Big Brown) had won the Derby with four career starts or fewer since 1918. And this was a horse who had never run on dirt, so he was also attempting to buck history there as well, as no horse had ever won the Derby in his dirt debut.
Crimson China, after finishing a fast-closing second in the Rushaway Stakes, took Animal Kingdom’s place in the Blue Grass and could finish no better than fifth, eliminating himself from Derby consideration.
So, Animal Kingdom headed for Churchill Downs and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, a year later, Team Valor and Motion are in a similar position, having four accomplished 3-year-olds whose best form has been on grass or synthetic. But by paving a new path on the Derby trail the year before, they have opened the door for other grass/synthetic horses to take the gamble and roll the dice on Derby Day. Four of those horses are their own – Howe Great, Lucky Chappy, State of Play, and Went the Day Well.
In past years, many owners and trainers who contracted Derby fever never fully recovered and saw their horses deteriorate, never to return to normal. While that still remains a residual effect of racing’s most common malady, it no longer is the deterrent it once was thanks to Team Valor and Animal Kingdom, who turned the improbable dream into reality.
As for Team Valor’s possible attempt to repeat history, Howe Great, a homebred son of the Sunday Silence stallion Hat Trick, has won his last three starts, including a powerful wire-to-wire victory in the Kitten’s Joy Stakes on grass at Gulfstream with Edgar Prado aboard. That followed a front-running allowance score at Gulfstream, in which he was ridden by Animal Kingdom’s jockey John Velazquez. His first two career starts were on dirt at Parx (Philly Park) and he was impressive there as well, finishing second in his career debut and then breaking his maiden going 6 ½ furlongs. The horse he defeated, Romp City, recently broke his maiden at Laurel by 4 ½ lengths.
By the way, if anyone is interested in the colt’s name, a hat trick in hockey is scoring three goals in one game. But a variation of that – a Gordie Howe hat trick – is scoring a goal and an assist and getting into a fight in one game.
“Howe Great will be reunited with Johnny Velazquez in the March 11 Palm Beach Stakes (gr. IIIT) on turf at Gulfstream,” said Team Valor president Barry Irwin, who has insisted all along that Howe Great is a grass horse and has no designs on the Derby. “Graham Motion has been after me to try him on the dirt again and because of this I may relent and try him in one of the Derby preps on dirt.”
Lucky Chappy, an Irish-bred son of High Chaparral, compiled a record of two victories and a second in his three starts in Italy before being purchased privately by Team Valor. He was sent to America, where he was third in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. IIIT) on the grass at Keeneland, a fast-closing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IT), and a second to stablemate Howe Great in the Kitten’s Joy. Sent to Northern California for the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) on the Tapet surface at Golden Gate, he ran a sensational race, rallying from 10th and last, circling horses six-wide, and just missing by the narrowest of noses after a memorable stretch duel.
“When we bought Lucky Chappy I was worried about him because he was hard to handle in his races and was a front-running run-off type,” Irwin said. “Well, I think he’s over that. He ran a “4 ¼” (Ragozin speed figure) in the El Camino Real Derby, which has to be one of the best figures going long in this crop,” Irwin said. “Over the next week and a half, we will decide whether to go to the UAE Derby (UAE-I) or, because we are concerned about a potential bounce, wait for the Blue Grass Stakes, after which we would bring him to Churchill Downs and see how he likes the track. Sound familiar?”
State of Play, a son of War Front who sold as a yearling for only $13,000 at the Keeneland September sale, won his first two career starts on the grass, including the With Anticipation Stakes (gr. IIT) at Saratoga, before faltering in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. IT). He tried the dirt in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (gr. III) at Tampa Bay, but tired after setting the pace and finished seventh, beaten 5 ½ lengths. He was purchased privately by Team Valor after he breezed impressively at a training center in Ocala.
“State of Play will try Polytrack in the John Battaglia at Turfway, and a good race would set him up for the Spiral Stakes,” Irwin said. “After that we may also take him to Churchill to try that dirt surface. He fizzled on dirt at Tampa, but that is an unusual surface and he warrants at least some breezes over a conventional dirt track.”
And finally we come to the horse who could be the sleeper of them all, Went the Day Well, who sold as a weanling for $15,000 and then pinhooked for $43,385 at the Tattersalls yearling sale. He was purchased privately in England by Team Valor following his career debut, in which he got left and was closing fast at the end to finish second. Englishman Mark Ford had bought him as a yearling and has retained a 25-percent interest. After his second start, another close second, he was sent to America.
By Proud Citizen, out of a Tiznow mare, he’s bred for the dirt, and in his first start in the U.S. going 1 1/8 miles on dirt, he closed from seventh and last to finish a strong fourth, beaten only 1 ½ lengths in a very encouraging effort. That performance was good enough for Team Valor and Motion to decide to step him way up in company.
“Went The Day Well has blossomed as hoped for following his U.S. and dirt debut and will be flown Wednesday to New York, where Edgar Prado will ride him in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III). I don't ever recall running a maiden in a graded race, but we are running out of time with him to make the classics, a result of him having been stuck in quarantine an extra ten days.”
Running against last year’s 2-year-old champion Hansen on what normally is a speed-favoring track, it would seem Went the Day Well is going to be ambitiously placed. But it certainly isn’t necessary for him to win. He just needs to be coming on in the stretch and show he can compete with top-class horses. Then he has the Wood Memorial (gr. I) to try to earn his way into the Kentucky Derby.
So, get ready for the Green Wave, as Team Valor once again prepares to butt heads with tradition. It is obvious this no longer is your father and grandfather’s Kentucky Derby, so unlatch all the doors and let’s see just what bursts through this year. If we have learned one thing since Team Valor’s old Clover Racing days of Martial Law and Prized, never ever underestimate Irwin and Company, especially now with Graham Motion at the helm. There are always dangerous predators in this animal kingdom.