by Terry Conway
They have some big shoes to fill.
Following in the storied hoof prints of Chester County alumna Smarty Jones, Aflleet Alex and Barbaro, a crop of stellar prospects with strong Chester County connections have mapped out their paths to Kentucky Derby 133 on Saturday, May 5.
Young horses can improve dramatically from one week to the next. Some seem to blossom overnight, turning into racing's future stars. Who will have the blanket of roses draped over his withers this year?
Great Hunter solidified his status as a top Derby contender in the $200,000 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on March 3. He unleashed an explosive move around the far turn picking off horses one by one then powering away in the stretch to earn an impressive victory.
That kind of push-button acceleration wins big races. You pounce on the leaders and blow right by them.
Born at Phil Fanning's Ivy Dell Farm in Unionville, Pa., Great Hunter won easily and seemed to have plenty in reserve when he crossed the wire. It was his first race in four months. Great Hunter would be Fanning's first Kentucky Derby horse.
"My feet haven't touched the ground since," related Phil Fanning, 83. "It looked so easy for him. It was a great way to start his three-year old year season."
Fanning has been involved with horses all his life. As a child he watched wide-eyed as draft horses delivered milk, coal and ice. As an amateur steeplechase jockey he rode for ten years, capturing the famed Maryland Hunt Cup on Ned's Flying in 1958.
He became involved with racing and breeding thoroughbreds some 40 years ago through the family of his late wife, Jill Valentine. Fanning managed a substantial broodmare operation until dispersing most of his stock over the past 14 months.
These days he's come to terms with his decision.
"Everyone thinks I'm nuts, but I have no regrets," Fanning observed. "You realize age is catching up with you. It seemed like the right thing to do with my estate planning.
"I've gotten just as much pleasure as his owner watching Great Hunter win those two big races. It pleases me to no end. After all he's my brainchild. "
Great Hunter, a son of Aptitude, is out of Fanning's former mare Zenith. She won over $205,000 in her 24 starts on the track for John Servis, of Smarty Jones fame. Fanning bought Zenith at a Keeneland breeding stock sale.
Aptitude was the runner-up in both the 2000 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes at three. Both Aptitude and Zenith's female bloodlines go back to Northern Dancer and Buckpasser, two of the greatest horses of the latter half of the 20th century.
Great Hunter has scored three wins, four seconds and a third in eight starts. He's earned $750,000 and is owned by Texan J. Paul Reddam, who also has Derby contenders in Notional and Liquidity.
"He is a gorgeous-bodied horse," said trainer Doug O'Neill. "Our goal is the first Saturday in May. We want to build and build as we go. Everything is coming together well."
Great Hunter's final Derby prep will be in the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 14. He'll be running over its Polytrack surface where he uncorked a stirring victory last fall. The colt has the pedigree, the turn of foot, and the consistency you want in a Derby horse.
"I wasn't expecting this," Fanning admitted. "It's so exciting. It seems everywhere I go, someone wants to talk about Great Hunter."
Hard Spun's daddy is one of the top sires in thoroughbred history. Born at Derry Meeting Farm in Cochranville, Pa., the mighty Danzig (who passed away in January 2006) topped the general sires list from 1991-93. He is one of only four horses in the last 100 years to head the list for as many as three straight seasons. Hard Spun is one of his last sons.
Unionville's Michael Moran and Brushwood Stable are the co-breeders. The talented colt is the result of a foal-sharing agreement where Michael's mare Turkish Tryst was bred to Danzig. Michael's mother Betty Moran owned a lifetime breeding share. Hard Spun was foaled at Brushwood near Malvern, Pa. in May 2003.
Undefeated in his first four races, Hard Spun was forced to go quite wide through both turns and finished a disappointing fourth as the odds-on favorite in the Southwest Stakes on February 19. He looks to get back on track in the $500,000 Lane's End at Turfway Park on March 24.
"When this colt was at the farm, he was the best of all my diamonds," said Betty Moran with a broad smile. "He was very competitive running in the field. He would be the first Derby horse we've bred, so we're pretty excited."
Brushwood Stable is ranked among the nation's premier equine auction buyers and sellers. Primarily a thoroughbred racing and breeding operation, Brushwood also maintains a stable of 25 thoroughbreds in Europe and the U. S. with trainers Bill Mott, Todd Pletcher, Nick Zito and Moran's son Michael.
Brushwood won the English Grand National in 2000 with Papillion, stamping Betty Moran as one of only nine American owners to win the historic race, which was first run in 1839. In 1985, her Crème Fraiche became the only gelding to win the Belmont. His time of 2:27 was the second-fastest since Secretariat.
As for Hard Spun, in early March Jones and the colt's owner Rick Porter, of Wilmington, Del., revamped his Derby Trail schedule. They are passing on the original plan of running in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.
"He just seems to struggle on the track here at Oaklawn," Jones said. "The Lane's End race will be run over Polytrack. He trained well over a synthetic surface when he was based at Fair Hill training center in Maryland last fall."
He has all the tools. A big, grand-looking colt with a huge stride, Nobiz Like Shobiz ended his 2-year old campaign as the Las Vegas Future Book favorite to win this year's Derby at 8-1. The colt won the Holly Bull Stakes easily to kick-off his three-year old campaign,
In the Fountain of Youth Stakes in early March, Nobiz Like Shobiz ran erratically. He ducked out briefly on the opening turn, recovered to race within easy striking distance of the early leaders then lost momentum when he lugged in for several strides near the eighth pole. The colt came on again from between horses in late stretch but finished a half-length shy of the winner.
Owned by Elizabeth Valando and named for her late husband, Tommy Valando owned a New York City music publishing company that produced the scores for Broadway shows such as Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret.
The colt is trained by Barclay Tagg, who apprenticed under Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard at his farm outside West Grove, Pa. Tagg graduated from Penn State University in 1961 with a degree in animal sciences and first got involved with horses while managing a farm in Pennsylvania in 1963.
He started riding jumpers in Chester County in 1966 and began his training career in earnest in 1971, winning his first race at Liberty Bell in 1972. Best known for training 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide, Tagg conditioned Roy and Gretchen Jackson's Showing Up, a multiple Grade One winner on the turf who finished sixth in the 2006 Derby. His other top horses include Miss Josh, Grab The Green, Social Retiree, Royal Mountain Inn, Tampico and Abigailthewife.
Tagg plans to add "cheater" blinkers to Nobiz Like Shobiz's equipment for the Wood Memorial, April 14. It's a hood designed for better focus while allowing the horse to see his competition. It is his last outing before the Derby.
Another nice local prospect is Adore The Gold who thrust himself into the Derby picture with a solid win in the 6-½ furlong Swale Stakes in February. The colt has won four of his first five career starts. Adore the Gold is trained by Michael Gorham who trains at Delaware Park and races regularly at Philadelphia Park
The colt ran a huge race, beaten just a length in fourth place in the Fountain of Youth Stakes battling some of the most talented colts in the country. His next stop will be the Florida Derby on March 31.
He's my best ever," Gorham said. "You can tell who the good horses are pretty quickly. It has a lot to do with disposition and natural talent."
Barbaro's trainer Michael Matz may find himself back on the Derby road again this spring with Chelokee. The colt scored a game victory over a strong field of first-level allowance 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park on March 3. Chelokee, a son of Cherokee Run, posted his second victory in five starts.
"This was a pretty good field he beat, and he made a very nice move to win it," said Matz, who lives on outside of Coatesville, Pa. "I'm really pleased. Off of this effort, I think he deserves the chance to do something good."
Welcome to the Derby Trail '07, and enjoy the ride.