Winners & Placers by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the May 12, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell In Thoroughbred racing not only do we laud the winner, we also recognize and give credit to those finishing second and third. The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and the Kentucky Oaks (both gr. I) gave us a rich slate of firsts, seconds, and thirds to ponder.

At the top of the list of firsts is jockey Mario Gutierrez’ winning ride on I’ll Have Another. The 25-year-old native of Mexico was making his first start in the Kentucky Derby and rode away with the roses. Only a month ago Gutierrez had won his first grade I stakes in the Santa Anita Derby and now owns a title that most riders spend a lifetime chasing. Gutierrez takes nothing for granted, fully appreciating and respecting the weight of the accomplishment and the moment.

“I had pretty good confidence because everyone was with me,” Gutierrez said after the race, referring to the many calls, e-mails, and Facebook posts he’d gotten from friends and family in Veracruz and in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he established himself as a professional rider. “I prepared myself 100%; I just didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”

Mission accomplished.

Other firsts belong to California owner J. Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O’Neill, who have both competed in the Kentucky Derby before but now have a golden cup to call their own. Reddam’s best Kentucky Derby performer prior to May 5 was Wilko, winner of the 2004 Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) who wound up sixth in the Derby. Reddam’s first Derby starter, owned in partnership, was Ten Most Wanted, who finished ninth in 2003. After Wilko, he and O’Neill were back in the 2007 Kentucky Derby with Great Hunter (13th) and Liquidity (14th).

For Reddam the Derby victory is a splendid mix of good fortune and good chemistry.

“The whole group tries to remember that racing is supposed to be fun first,” Reddam said. “I never dreamed that I would be in a position to own racehorses, but I got very lucky in my life and it happened. I guess I’m still pretty lucky.”

O’Neill’s only previous Derby starters were Great Hunter and Liquidity. He and his brother Dennis have been part of the Southern California racing scene since the mid-1980s. Doug took out his trainer’s license in 1994 and has been conditioning a steady stream of diamonds in the rough that Dennis finds at auction, such as I’ll Have Another, who Dennis bought for $35,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s April 2-year-olds in training sale.

“Dennis has been there with me through the ups and downs, and there’s been a lot of downs,” said Doug O’Neill. “Paul, he’s a big owner, but he’s also a big fan. Winning this; it’s an incredible feeling.”

Adding to the lists of firsts, I’ll Have Another became the first horse in the Derby’s 138-year history to win coming out of post 19. Post 17 now remains the only winless position.

Rosie Napravnik contributed to the first-ever list May 4 by becoming the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Oaks.
Among the placers, a couple of owners deserve recognition.

Ahmed Zayat had his most tantalizingly close finish yet in this year’s Derby with Bodemeister finishing 11⁄2 lengths back in second. Among the five starters he’s had in the Derby, he’s now finished second three times. The others were in 2009 with Pioneerof the Nile and in 2011 with Nehro. The Egyptian-born international businessman owns Bodemeister with Mike and Tiffany Moreno. An impressive winner of the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), Bodemeister is sure to have many good wins ahead of him—maybe in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). It is still worth noting, incidentally, that the colt is by Empire Maker, who finished second in the 2003 Kentucky Derby to Funny Cide.

Jerry Crawford, owner of the Donegal Racing partnership stable, has had his own collection of mixed blessings in the Derby, having finished third twice in his only two starts. Donegal finished third in 2010 with Paddy O’Prado, who came into the race off a second in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), and again on May 5 with Dullahan, who had won this year’s Blue Grass Stakes. Paddy O’Prado went on after the Derby to win the grade I Secretariat Stakes and three other graded stakes. Like Bodemeister, Dullahan has good races ahead of him.

As for Zayat and Crawford and their Derby records, their patience will be rewarded. Consistently good form will eventually deliver and wrap them in their own blanket of roses.

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