When Medal Count showed up at Dale Roman’s barn at Churchill Downs as a promising 2-year-old, the colt was an immediate standout.
“After he started training, I thought he was our best horse,” the trainer said.
Owner B. Wayne Hughes had also thought enough of the colt by Dynaformer, out of the graded stakes-placed Brisquette (by Unbridled’s Song), to give $360,000 for him during the opening session of the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale in the name of his Spendthrift Farm.
But while Medal Count apparently possessed all the right physical attributes and was a quick study, the colt apparently had some growing up to do first.
“Mentally he wasn’t all together. You can take Felton Spencer from when he was in ninth grade at Eastern to when he graduated from U of L and that’s how this horse has been,” Romans said, referring to the now retired NBA center who was an all-star player at Eastern High School in Middletown, Ky., before attending the University of Louisville, where he become the all-time field goal percentage leader with 62.8%.
At the races, school started early for Medal Count.
In his career debut at Ellis Park the colt got a face full of dirt, had to rate behind a wall of horses, got boxed in, and then had to bull his way past an opponent to create running room.
“He got about four races worth of schooling out of his first start,” said Ned Toffey, general manager of Spendthrift. “As soon as he had daylight in front of him, he just accelerated the last eighth of a mile and opened up about six lengths. At that point, we got fairly excited.”
Medal Count then got schooled more in his second start in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland.
“He got in trouble in just about the whole race and was only beaten by just over two lengths,” said jockey Robby Albarado, who has been aboard Medal Count for four of his seven lifetime starts and will ride him in the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
As a 3-year-old, the colt has matured immensely, Romans said.
“We had some races in which he had some adversity and in the big picture that has really helped him,” he said. “With 20 horses in the field, unless you go gate to wire, you’re going to have a problem somewhere in the race; you just have to be able to overcome it. He is quick enough to overcome things.”
The big question hanging over Medal Count now is whether he can run the race of his career to date on dirt.
Since the Bourbon Stakes, Medal Count has run in two dirt races. He finished 11th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park and finished fifth in the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park. After the Fountain of Youth, the colt won the grade III Transylvania Stakes on Keeneland’s Polytrack then finished a good second in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).
The majority of Dynaformer’s best runners certainly have excelled on grass, but there have been exceptions. The most notable is 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who started his 3-year-old campaign by winning the grade III Tropical Park Derby on the grass. Other Dynaformer top performers to shine on dirt include graded stakes winners Perfect Drift, Dynever, and Critical Eye.
“The races on dirt in which he hasn’t run well, I think there were some other issues going on there,” said Toffey. “Certainly on turf and synthetic the results have been a little bit better, but I think he will still prove to be a very good dirt horse.”
Romans points out the colt has done the bulk of his training at Churchill Downs.
“This horse is just doing so good; there is absolutely nothing I’m worried about with him,” Romans said. “I have a profile in my mind of what a Derby horse is, and he fits that perfectly. He has the pedigree, the running style, the size to handle himself when he gets bounced around, and the speed to get himself out of trouble. He is as good a horse that I have brought to the Derby.”
And considering Spendthrift’s success with Romans, Toffey said there is no reason to doubt the trainer’s faith. As evidence, Toffey noted the first two horses Romans trained for Spendthrift won graded stakes at combined odds of 101-1. They were Court Vision, who won the 2011 TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) at 65-1 at Churchill Downs; and Moonwalk, a homebred filly who won the JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland at 36-1.
“So when Dale tells us we ought to take a shot,” Toffey said, “we listen.”