REED: Derby Strategy #3 – Root for the Home Team

Here’s the 3rd installment in Billy Reed’s series on how to pick a Derby winner. Thanks to Billy and LouisvilleCatholicSports.com

By Billy Reed

In thoroughbred racing, a home team is any horse whose owner, trainer, and jockey are based at the track where a given race takes place. For example, the Preakness field often contains a “new shooter” who didn’t run him in the Kentucky Derby because his Maryland connections wanted to have him fresh for the Triple Crown’s second jewel at Pimlico in racing. A home-team horse also is known as a “house horse.”

Lil E. Tee in 1992

Probably the best example of a home team winning the Derby came in 1992, when Lil E. Tee won the roses for owner Cal Partee, trainer Lynn Whiting, and jockey Pat Day. Nowhere was that victory more celebrated than it was on the Churchill Downs backside, because Partee, Whiting, and Day had been fixtures there for many years.

From 1941 through 1968, the Derby’s most celebrated and successful “home team” was Calumet Farm, the lush spread just west of Lexington owned by Warren Wright, and, after his death, his widow Lucille and her second husband, Admiral Gene Markey. During that 27-year span, Calumet won the Derby a record eight times and the Triple Crown twice (Whirlaway in 1941 and Citation in ’48).

Ben A. “Plain Ben” Jones trained five of Calumet’s Derby winners (Whirlaway, Pensive in 1944, Citation, Ponder in ‘49, and Hill Gail in ’52), and his son Jimmy trained two more (Iron Liege in ’57 and Tim Tam in ’58) after his retirement.

The farm’s eighth and most recent Derby winner came in the most bizarre and controversial Derby ever. After traces of an illegal medication allegedly were found in the post-race tests of the victorious Dancer’s Image, he was disqualified and Calumet’s Forward Pass, who had finished second, was declared the winner. That colt was trained by Henry Forrest and ridden by Ismael “Milo” Valenzuela.

In its last great hurrah on the Derby stage, Calumet was the “home team” in the 1978 Derby due to Alydar, a powerful colt who had Triple Crown stamped all over him. Instead, Alydar became the first runner to finish second in all three races, losing each time to Affirmed.

The sons of A.B. “Bull” Hancock Jr., who turned the Claiborne Farm of Paris, Ky., into the world’s pre-eminent breeding establishment, both won the race their father coveted most but never captured. Arthur Hancock III, owner of the Stone Farm next door to Claiborne, won the roses in 1982 with Gato Del Sol and again in ’89 with Sunday Silence. His younger brother Seth, who took over as boss at Claiborne after his father’s death, had the enormous satisfaction of seeing Swale carry the farm’s solid orange silks to victory in the 1984 Derby.

When Monarchos won the 127th Derby in 2001, I considered it a “home team” victory because trainer John Ward and his wife Donna were lifelong Kentuckians who operated a farm just across Rice Road from Keeneland. Ward, in fact, was a third-generation trainer. His uncle, Sherrill, trained the great gelding Forego to a couple of Horse of the Year titles in the 1970s.

The most prominent home-team horses in this year’s Derby are Archarcharch, winner of the Arkansas Derby, and Shackleford, who seemed to have the Florida Derby won before being overtaken by likely Kentucky Derby favorite Dialed In in the final strides.

The trainer of Archarcharch, William “Jinx” Fires, has long been one of those Churchill-based horsemen who are shoved into the background when the Derby comes to town. He’s a racetrack lifer who has developed his share of good allowance and claiming horses, but never had one good enough to compete at the top level.  Until now, that is. At 71, Fires finally has the horse of his dreams in Archarcharch, who turned in a blazing Thursday workout at Churchill.

Fires has been around Churchill for so long that he was competing against Jerry Romans when Romans’ son Dale was just a pup hanging around his dad’s barn. As soon as he was old enough, Dale went into the family business and has far surpassed his dad in stakes victories and earnings. While Jerry never had a horse good enough to even make the Derby, Dale will be saddling his third Derby horse when Shackleford comes to the paddock late Saturday afternoon.

After beginning his career in 1987, Romans won his first Eclipse Award with Kitten’s Joy in 2004 and his first Breeders Cup with Tapitsfly in the 2009 Distaff Turf Mile. Last year he won a sort of personal Triple Crown when he finished third in the Derby with Paddy O’Prado, a close second in the Preakness with First Dude, and third in the Belmont Stakes, again with First Dude.

In memory of his dad, Dale trains out of Barn 4 on Churchill’s backside, the same one where Jerry was based and where he passed along his gift with horses to his son.

“He (Jerry) never had a big horse,” said Dale. “He told me he really didn’t want one. He didn’t want to deal with that kind of pressure. What he did was study horses. He knew which ones to claim, which ones he could make better, and which ones he should sell. He loved what he did and he loved the business. Most of all, he loved being able to do what he did at the level he did it and staying under the glare of the media radar.”

So if you want to root, root, root for My Old Kentucky Home team, play Archarcharch and Shackleford in an exacta box. Just remember that if you win, the only appropriate place to celebrate would be Pat’s Steak House, which has been the favorite nightspot for local horsemen for longer than even Jinx Fires can remember.

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