When Kentucky-based trainer Mike Maker awakened Monday, he must have felt a little like Mitt Romney after Newt Gingrichâ€™s win in the South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary or how Gingrich probably felt after days of campaigning in Florida when the polls went from promising to perilous for Tuesdayâ€™s primary in the Sunshine State.
Maker has a talented gray colt named Hansen in his barn and heâ€™s working to move his reigning 2-year-old champion and winner of the Grey Goose Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs back to the Louisville track as a major player for the 138th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 5.
Hansen was a heavy favorite as he made his debut as a 3-year-old and his first start since his Breedersâ€™ Cup win in early November in Sundayâ€™s $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes at the one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park.
But Maker was reminded quickly that the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile triumph was so three months ago. Hansen stumbled under jockey Ramon Dominquez as he exited the starting gate, rushed to the lead and then offered little resistance as unbeaten Algorithms blew past the champ in upper stretch and drew off to win by five lengths.
Hansen held on for the runner-up spot over late-running longshot My Adonis.
It would be no exaggeration to say many racing observers and fans expected a tumble by Hansen at some point on the Derby Trail, but perhaps not in the Holy Bull. He displayed runaway speed in all of his races at two and, despite a big victory margin in his Eclipse Awards category, many observers and fans question his ability to navigate the Derbyâ€™s mile and a quarter.
But the one-turn mile distance of the Holy Bull did not figure to be the race in which he would seem to validate the opinions of his doubters.
And perhaps the 2012 debut of Hansen will, in retrospect, turn out to be better effort than it initially appeared. The stumble out of the starting gate could not have helped him, and could have contributed to a quicker-than-planned start as he recovered from his awkward beginning.
No Sign of Progress
But those with doubts about Hansenâ€™s Derby prospects were watching the Holy Bull for some sign that that champ had learned to relax in those three months since the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile, and there was no sign of that progress.
After assessing his coltâ€™s setback, Makerâ€™s tone would have fit well in the aftermath of the primary battles between Romney, Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
â€œHe has a lot of speed and he might have been a little bit fresh today, too â€“ which is why we went a little faster than I was looking for,â€ Maker said. â€œHe stumbled coming out of the gate and he picked himself up pretty quickly, but sometimes that scares a horse a little bit and they go a little fast. The stumble probably didnâ€™t help but itâ€™s not an excuse.â€
Not Happy, But…
â€œIâ€™m not happy that he didnâ€™t win but Iâ€™m not totally disappointed. When he got passed, he really dug in and he galloped out really well.â€
Or, in the terms of the political horse race, itâ€™s a long way to the convention and the November election.
The next primary, er, prep race for Hansen is expected to be the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 26 at Gulfstream. The distance that day will be at two turns at 1 1/16 miles and the opponents could include Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile favorite and runner-up Union Rags and the Triple Crown Trailâ€™s newest star, Holy Bull winner Algorithm.
There are ample reasons for hometown cheering for Hansen, given he is trained by Maker and owned by Northern Kentuckian Dr. Kendall Hansen and the Louisville-based Skychai Racing, which includes Harvey Diamond and Jim Shircliff. But thereâ€™s room for provincial support for Algorithms, who is trained by Derby-winner Todd Pletcher for an ownership team that has plenty of Kentucky connections.
Algorithms is owned by the Starlight Racing Stable partnership headed by Louisville native Jack Wolf and his wife, Laurie. This partnership also includes Louisville attorney Ed Glasscock and his son, Clint.
The son of rising sire Bernardini is one of several Derby hopes in the Pletcher barn. That group includes El Padrino, who was an impressive winner of an allowance race earlier on Sundayâ€™s Gulfstream Park card.
Algorithmâ€™s win in the Holy Bull was impressive in every way and his presence is the most sizzling on the Derbyâ€™s current â€œWhoâ€™s Hot?â€ roster. Given his connections, his pedigree and what he has shown in his three starts, he looks like a horse with staying power and is most likely a bona fide major player for Derby 138.
But his next start will be his first around two turns and that is always an important test on the road to Churchill Downs. But the Kentucky Derby is still three months away and much will happen before then.
Just ask Mike Maker, or Mitt or Newt. A few days or a week can make an incredible distance.
And then you have to pass the ultimate test, which lasts just over two minutes at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.