While many of the leading Preakness contenders are preparing for the second jewel in the Triple Crown at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, several of them coming out of the Kentucky Derby, there is one horse likely waiting for the Belmont Stakes who is tucked away far from the action, enjoying the tranquility of Saratoga Race Course and unwinding after an eventful trip in the soggy Run for the Roses.
While most of the activity in the morning at Saratoga seems to be the constant flashes of Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown saddlecloths whizzing around the Oklahoma training track, a good deal of those the stars of tomorrow, Bill Mott has his main arsenal up at the Spa, including major stakes winners Elate, Yoshida, and Good Samaritan, the last two coming off a grade 1 victory and a grade 3 placing, respectively, at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend. Riley Mott, assistant to his father, is excited about the prospect of sending Yoshida to Royal Ascot for the group 1 Queen Anne Stakes.
But the star who has yet to win stakes is the one who offers the most intrigue at this time, and that is Hofburg, who stormed on the Derby scene late by finishing a fast-closing second in the Florida Derby in only the third start of his career, while coming off a half-length maiden score at Gulfstream Park, overcoming the disastrous 11-post.
Not much of the post-Derby talk has been about Hofburg, but those following him during the race and seeing where he was around the far turn and at the head of the stretch had to have thoughts of the Belmont Stakes watching him skipping over the mud far out in the middle of the track to finish a respectable seventh. But that is far from the story of Hofburg’s Kentucky Derby.
After brushing with Lone Sailor coming of the gate, he was steered to the inside by jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. Racing near the back of the pack into the backstretch, he had Lone Sailor to his inside on the rail, with Audible about three-quarters of a length ahead to his outside. But Lone Sailor and Audible came together just enough to force Hofburg to lose his position, and he now found himself three lengths behind Lone Sailor, with only two horses behind him. All he could see ahead of him were a cluster of hooves spraying back sheets of mud.
Ortiz eased him toward the rail, which he now had to himself, and his connections starting envisioning the golden Mine That Bird, Street Sense, and Super Saver dream trip along the rail. All he would need is the inviting opening those horses were fortunate enough to get.
But as he began to move up, Ortiz saw that Lone Sailor had the rail occupied and was showing no signs of giving it up, so he moved him out and began looking for room between horses. But there wasn’t enough space between Lone Sailor and a tiring Mendelssohn, so Ortiz kept moving him out farther, just waiting for an inviting hole. That hole seemed to appear between Mendelssohn and Combatant at the five-sixteenths pole, but it quickly closed and Ortiz was forced to steady and keep looking. By now, Hofburg was out of the race way at the back of the pack.
Turning for home, Hofburg got bumped around by Combatant and Magnum Moon, and Ortiz finally gave up and just steered the colt to the far outside, out in the middle of the track. He knew he had no chance to win or even finish in the money, but at least this way he would have a clear run to the wire. Hofburg, although still back in 13th at the eighth pole, more than 18 lengths off the lead, leveled off and was striding out strongly through the stretch. He crossed the finish line in 7th, beaten 8 3/4 lengths (he was sixth one jump past the wire), a terrific showing for such an inexperienced colt who had to overcome a less than ideal trip stuck at the back of the pack in the slop. Among the 13 horses behind him were the winners of the Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, UAE Derby, Wood Memorial, Fountain of Youth, San Felipe, Rebel, and Gotham, as well as the runners-up in the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Louisiana Derby.
If you watch the NBC replay of the race, the camera zooms in on a close-up of Justify galloping out shortly after the wire. Watch the left part of your screen and you will see the white, green, and pink colors of Juddmonte fly into the picture and blow right past Justify, disappearing just as quickly off the right part of your screen. Yes, it was after a mile and a quarter, but Hofburg, once in the clear after all his travail, was just beginning to run.
For a horse with only three career starts to endure such an eventful trip and still be coming fast at the finish, shows a lot about the horse. According to Riley Mott, who was with the colt after the race, he cooled out in 10 minutes after returning to the barn and was none the worse for wear, shrugging it all off like a true professional.
Now here he was five days later at Saratoga, back jogging and nickering to get out to the track. Riley said the colt bounced out of the race in great shape, and after several days of jogging, in which he wanted to do more, he was back galloping on Monday.
Looking back, Riley said they knew they had something way back last August when Hofburg was beating everything they put with him in the mornings.
“In Florida, I don’t think any of us knew quite how good the horse was at that point,” Riley said. “His ceiling seems pretty high if he continues to improve. He certainly acted like our nicest 2-year-old last summer but needed some time to develop after his initial race. As far as running him in the Florida Derby off his maiden win, I think it was combination of the timing and situation of the race and the confidence we had that he was a good horse. It was fulfilling that he ran so well but it wasn’t a surprise to anyone in our camp.
“We were just thankful to be participating in the Kentucky Derby. It meant a lot to my dad and to everyone in the barn.”
As far as having a Belmont pedigree, Hofburg is by Tapit, who has sired three of the last four Belmont winners, out of a mare by Touch Gold, who won the 1997 Belmont Stakes. He is also inbred 3x3 top and bottom to 1992 Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy, who is by Belmont Stakes winner Seattle Slew, out of Weekend Surprise, who is by Belmont Stakes winner Secretariat.
His tail-female family goes back four generations of the Niarchos family and before that E.P. Taylor. Fourth dam, Coup de Folie (dam of group 1 winner and leading sire Machiavellian and group 1 winner Exit to Nowhere), is a daughter of Halo (sire of two Kentucky Derby winners) and is inbred 3x3 to the blue hen producer Almahmoud, dam of Cosmah (who produced champion filly Tosmah and Halo) and Natalma (dam of Northern Dancer).
So, it will be interesting to see if Justify, like Bob Baffert’s other four Kentucky Derby winners, can come back and repeat in the Preakness. If he does, watch out for Hofburg in the Belmont Stakes. He is enjoying life up in Saratoga and will be fresh and deadly when Mott sends him back down to Belmont, where he would be attempting the rare feat of trying to win the Test of the Champion in only the fifth start of his life. Just being around him for a couple of mornings is enough to make you believe if any horse can do it it’s this horse.
But if it’s not quite his time, just wait for the finished product to show up in the Travers Stakes.