Haskin's Derby Trail: "Veni, Vidi, Valor"

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.


Leave a Comment:


People, check out a horse called SIR BOND....not on anyones list.  Check out his leg speed in the stretch compared to others....up and coming talented horse...big closer...

22 Feb 2012 2:03 PM

I was at Golden Gate for the El Camino Real and was extremely impressed by Lucky Chappy. With his short stature and unusual roan color, he looks more like a child's pony than a racehorse--but can he ever run! Keep an eye on this guy; he's going places.

22 Feb 2012 2:18 PM

Great article!

Do any of these sleepers have a way of going as well asAnimal Kingdom?

Also, was Valor higher on Crimson China than AK at this time last year?

22 Feb 2012 2:36 PM

thanks KY VET for sir bond. back at you with fly alexi fly at santa anita in april and discreet dancer front end win this weekend at the gulf

22 Feb 2012 4:03 PM
Steve Haskin

Sir Bond was spectacular in his last start. I'm planning on writing about him next week. I hope Neil Howard gets him to the Derby. He's one of the real good guys.

 Yes, they were higher on Crimson China because he was farther advanced.

22 Feb 2012 4:21 PM
Steve Haskin

Bigtex, I love the way Howe Great moves. It was on grass. but he has a beautiful stride,

22 Feb 2012 4:23 PM
Dr Drunkinbum


  I agree with your comments on "And They're Off" AKA "Out on a Limb" show about Animal Kingdom quite possibly being a Superstar Monster. He's got it all and it's great to have him back. Game On Dude is also special and I'm looking forward to seeing what Ultimate Eagle is going to do in the Big Cap. He's been pretty special too.

22 Feb 2012 5:37 PM

I really like Howe Great.  I'm not as familiar with the other colts, but I'm certain I'll catch up on them soon.

I'm still trying to come down from the high I felt watching Animal Kingdom's return to the track.  Wow!  What a great rehab job.  He looked better than ever...and that stride...again...wow!

22 Feb 2012 6:25 PM

What an entertaining and informative article!  I love learning the back story as you've told us here - thank you.  I will definitely be watching these colts you have mentioned.  The story on Howe Great's name alone is wonderful, but I love the ring to Went The Day Well.  I was very impressed with Lucky Chappy in the El Camino Real - if his head was as big as the horse who won, he most likely would have won that race or called it a dead heat - lol!  His smaller stature sure made a noticeable difference there, but wow, was he fighting for it.  Impressive!

Thank you, Steve, for all your wonderful insight!



22 Feb 2012 8:25 PM

Currency Swap's 47:0 last weekend at Gulf, keeps showing promise. Did anyone say Preakness?

23 Feb 2012 1:15 AM
Baby Jane Towser

Team Valor is incredible. A homebred, a Tattersalls pinhook, a $13,000 yearling and a horse from Italy. So hard to come up with a good horse and they just keep finding ways to get it done. Great pedigrees too. Hat Trick is the real deal as sire. Great move breeding to him. Went the Day Well looked like Derby material in the El Camino Real. His pedigree is pretty nice. He is by Proud Citizen and is out of a Tiznow mare. Proud Citizen's 4th dam is Natalma, the dam of Northern Dancer, while Tiznow is 4x4 to Northern Dancer. I wonder what grade the True Nicks boys would give this guy. I hope they can all stay healthy. Good Luck to Team Valor.

23 Feb 2012 2:06 AM

Thanks Steve for your insightful look at the possible up and comers for the Derby. It makes it all the more intriguing and also gives new hope for the Derby trail as it not necessarily being a means to an end for the horses career.

23 Feb 2012 6:00 AM


I agree with you.  If HOWE GREAT was a chestnut, I'm not sure if I could tell a difference between him & ANIMAL KINGDOM.  

Do you know how tall AK is???  I think he'll win in Dubai just as he did the Derby.  Even though he didn't get there I think he's a triple crown talent.  

23 Feb 2012 10:24 AM
Shelby's Best Pal

I enjoyed reading this article.  No one does it better, Mr. Haskin.  

23 Feb 2012 11:33 AM

Alot of horses out there that no one is talking about.....another is SHARED PROPERTY.....beaten fav of the keebreedersfuturity.....one prep this year.......

23 Feb 2012 8:14 PM
Tiz Herself

Can't wait for the Fountain of Youth this weekend! Union Rags vs Discreet Dancer and Algorithms! Should be a good one. I cannot wait to see how Julien Leparoux does in his debut ride with Union Rags. I do like Fort Loudon as well and Casual Trick was an impressive Churchill - he has ability being by Bernardini and Zito will get him right too. Should be a good one!

Steve, what is your view on Sabercat? He is one that is kind of under the rader. His Delta Jackpot was well done.

Also really like Battle Hardened, who broke his maiden in the Sam F. Davis @ Santa Anita for the Coolmore connections. Anyone know where he is at?

Looking at the Earnings list, I wonder if there is a chance if Coolmore will bring Wrote over and run him in the Derby?

Also, I know it is not Triple Crown, but welcome back to two oldies Awesome Gem (9) and Musketier (10).

23 Feb 2012 10:48 PM
Tiz Herself

I think with the chance of having a full field of 20 this year with the also eligibles will make things interesting as well!

My Derby picks (not in any order)

Union Rags



Creative Cause



Out of Bounds

Discreet Dancer


I'll Have Another


Battle Hardened


Mr. Bowling

Longview Drive

Take Charge Indy


In The Beat

Motor City

Empire Way

This all changes every other week  :) It has been a long time since I have been so excited about the three year olds this time of year. Last time was when Curlin, Street Sense, Hard Spun, Rags to Riches, Octave, Indian Blessing,etc. were coming on.

23 Feb 2012 10:53 PM
Tiz Herself

Oh and add to my growing list of course is El Padrino. He looks like he could be a monster.

23 Feb 2012 10:54 PM
Tiz Herself

Will be rooting for the Smarty Jones gelding Isn't He Clever this weekend in the Borderland Derby also. Would love to see a Smarty baby at the Derby this year!

Oh and also for the list is Fed Biz!

And also not TC but looking forward to The Factor vs Amazombie this weekend, too!

23 Feb 2012 11:03 PM
Pedigree Ann

"Team Valor is incredible. A homebred, a Tattersalls pinhook, a $13,000 yearling and a horse from Italy. So hard to come up with a good horse and they just keep finding ways to get it done."

This is why Team Valor makes money; they don't follow the crowd and don't think that only hyped bloodlines and expensive purchases have racing talent. Remember - Seattle Slew cost $17,500 as a yearling; Mine That Bird was a $9500 yearling, Singletary (BC Mile, etc.) was a $3200 yearling; Amazombie was the unwanted part of a package deal.

Once one gets past the conceit that only the expensive offspring of leading sires and blue-blooded mares can have talent a whole world of possibilities opens up.

24 Feb 2012 8:57 AM
El Kabong

Steve, Bigtex

I singled Chappy over Daddy Nose Best and was waiting for the photo to determine the fate of my superfecta. With 3rd and 4th place visibly mine, I needed the bob. I lost,  but I got a good look at the photo and yes, I was overwhelmed by the size of DNB's mellon:O. What was I thinking. That horse will never lose a photo.

24 Feb 2012 12:15 PM

El Kabong


Pedigree Ann

Totally agree.  I think someone should hire me/us to scout horse talent.  I could get into that!  Who needs me in Italy???

25 Feb 2012 1:31 AM
Scott's Cause

Love the way recent comments are being expressed.  You don't always have to stand on a chair and thump your chest to get your opinion/point across.  Sometimes cool and articulate grammar is all that is really needed.  "Did I mispell grammar?"  Hope you get my point.  Go Sabercat, but really leaning towards a Raise a Native line colt....??

27 Feb 2012 3:37 PM


Sir Bond goes in the 7th at the Fair Grounds on Friday. I've had my eye on him as well. The race looks tough, alot of horses coming into the race off career bests including one who beat Sir Bond in his last race so if he takes that one he's looking even better. I'm looking to make some money keying "Bond" but returns on bonds these days are pretty paltry.


Looking forward to your article on Sir Bond.  

29 Feb 2012 8:44 AM

Recent Posts



Social Media

More Blogs