The fall of the year, well before the journey on the Kentucky Derby trail begins, is a very special time in racing. It is during those fall months that we often see the seeds sprout that eventually will blossom into the Kentucky Derby winner. That is when Derby dreams are born. Any one of those seedlings could grow into a magnificent Thoroughbred that will one day make history. At least that is what every owner and trainer dreams of.
It is the moment they all hope for; the moment when some horse forces them to take a second look at their stopwatch to make sure they weren't seeing things or when some horse shows that special something in their maiden race that evokes images of the Twin Spires off in the distance.
Sometimes you'll find a horse who has already inspired feelings of excitement and now all that is needed is confirmation.
Then there are times when horsemen have the opposite feeling; that the horse they might have had high hopes for is not what they thought he was and those horses are relegated to the lower ranks. But horses can often fool even the most astute trainers.
On September 29th of last year, all those feelings came into play on a single afternoon, experienced by trainers from California to Kentucky. It is a day they won't soon forget.
In the first race at Santa Anita, Bob Baffert sent out a first time starter named Improbable, who scored a gutsy neck victory going six furlongs at odds of 2-5, so the word was out on him, and the name Baffert certainly didn't hurt. Finishing third in the race, beaten 4 3/4 lengths, was the 3-1 second choice named Gray Magician, making his third career start.
In the fourth race, a one-mile maiden event on the grass, trainer Richard Mandella sent out a colt on whom he was very high named Omaha Beach, who was beaten a nose at 6-5 after a furious stretch run. Having previously been beaten as the even-money favorite, Mandella was starting to have some doubts about the colt's willingness to win, especially after losing his next two starts on the grass by narrow margins.
Two races later, Baffert was overjoyed to have found his next classic horse when he sent out the 2-5 favorite Game Winner to score an impressive victory in the grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes in his two-turn debut.
Meanwhile, earlier in the day at Churchill Downs, trainer Ben Colebrook was having the opposite feeling. Having the opportunity to train for Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider, he felt compelled to run their first-time starter by Arch named Tax in a $30,000 claiming race, the second race on the card. Part of the reason no doubt was that he was a gelding. Tax didn't get any respect at the mutuel windows either, going off at 10-1. He battled for the lead the whole way and was beaten a half-length in a three-horse blanket finish. Colebrook went to the claiming well three weeks later and this time lost the gelding for $50,000 to trainer Danny Gargan, who won the shake after six other claims were submitted.
So on this one day, we had Omaha Beach, Game Winner, Improbable, Tax, and Gray Magician compete in a variety of races from maiden claiming to maiden special weight to grade 1 stakes, on dirt and on grass, from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles on both ends of the country.
Seven months later, all are preparing to meet in the Kentucky Derby, with Omaha Beach the likely favorite and Game Winner and Improbable anywhere from second to fifth choice. Since September 29, the five horses have combined to win the grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Los Alamitos Futurity, and Arkansas Derby, as well as the grade 2 Rebel Stakes, grade 3 Withers Stakes, and listed Street Sense Stakes, and place in the Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby, UAE Derby, Wood Memorial, Rebel Stakes, Remsen Stakes, and Miracle Wood Stakes.
Who knows, for some owner and trainer, September 29, 2018 could become a very important date on May 4.