Thursday, April 19, 2012

Derby Hopeful: Dullahan

A muddy bay gelding skimmed the rail at Churchill Downs, skipping over the sloppy surface as he deserted the eighteen other Thoroughbreds in the 2009 Kentucky Derby (GI). In bewilderment, spectators glanced at their programs to identify the horse who was easily galloping to a Derby victory, their jaws dropping and their brows expressing their surprise.

“Who’s that?” was likely uttered from the mouths of a large amount of people watching the Run for the Roses.

The answer to that question was Mine That Bird, a colt whose racing performances had deteriorated after his championship juvenile season in Canada. As he carried jockey Calvin Borel to his second victory in the Kentucky Derby, he became the second longest shot to ever win the prestigious race.

Three years after Mine That Bird captured the Derby, his half-brother, Dullahan, will go to post in the same race.

Photo: Terri Cage
Things immediately got off to a better start for Dullahan than they did for Mine That Bird. The 2009 Kentucky Derby victor sold for a meager $9,500 at the 2007 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Fall Yearling Sale whereas Dullahan sold for $250,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.

Dullahan debuted on June 9, 2011 as a juvenile, facing what would end up being one of the toughest fields in a two-year-old maiden special weight of the year at Churchill Downs. Racing wide, the chestnut colt finished third behind the future graded stakes-winning horses Exfactor and Daddy Nose Best.

Going a sixteenth of a mile farther next out in another maiden special weight at the Louisville track, Dullahan faced yet another very talented field. Running an uninspiring fifth, the half-brother to Mine That Bird was defeated by the eventual graded stakes-placed horses Big Blue Nation and Lockout and the future graded stakes-winning Sabercat. Despite finishing fifth, Dullahan still finished in front of several gifted horses, including Daddy Nose Best and Saturday Launch, the latter of which recently finished fourth in the Illinois Derby (GIII).

Dullahan made his turf debut next out in a mile and one-sixteenth maiden special weight at the renowned Saratoga Racecourse. He turned in his best performance yet, rating off the eventual winner before gaining ground on him late to miss by a half-length.

Despite the fact that he was still a maiden, Jerry Crawford’s Donegal Racing and trainer Dale Romans entered Dullahan in the With Anticipation Stakes (GII) at Saratoga. Over a firm turf course, Dullahan settled off the pace set by State of Play, allowing the future stakes-placed runner Sportswriter and the eventual multiple graded stakes-placed Optimizer to race ahead of him for the majority of the race. Facing traffic troubles around the far turn, Dullahan found room to run in the homestretch and though he ran a good third, he could not keep up with State of Play and Optimizer.

Rather than returning to the maiden ranks, Dullahan made his following start in the most prominent Keeneland juvenile stakes of the year, the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (GI). Starting over a synthetic surface for the first time, Dullahan also ran with a new running style, coming from far off the pace. He was forced to steady on the far turn, but had no issue recovering. The chestnut colt made a breathtaking closing move, swinging wide off the far turn to mow down the leaders in the homestretch. Winning by three-quarters of a length, Dullahan defeated the past or future winners of four graded stakes races.

Like Mine That Bird, Dullahan contested in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Stakes (GI). The result was much better for Dullahan, however. While Mine That Bird finished last, Dullahan closed from the back of the pack to pass nine horses. The chestnut colt maneuvered traffic and was guided to the outside by jockey Kent Desormeaux, making up much ground to finish fourth behind the talented horses Hansen, Union Rags, and Creative Cause.

Dullahan’s sophomore debut was delayed due to a slight illness, but he returned in the Palm Beach Stakes (GIII) in March, revisiting turf as he made his first start at Gulfstream Park. Under Desormeaux, he raced in fifth in the six-horse field for most of the race before closing in the homestretch to finish a length behind Howe Great.

In his final start before the Kentucky Derby, Dullahan returned to Keeneland – the home of his only victory. Like the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity, this start was one of the most prestigious races held at the Lexington, Kentucky track: the Blue Grass Stakes (GI). Dullahan’s race in the Blue Grass was nearly identical to his race in the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity. Settling near the rear of the field, Dullahan made a dazzling run around the far turn before mowing down the leaders to score. Rather than the graded stakes-winning Majestic City being the final horse he passed in the stretch, Dullahan charged past the champion Hansen to capture the prestigious Derby prep by 1 ¼ lengths.

Dullahan shipped to Churchill Downs shortly after his Blue Grass triumph to begin training under the Twin Spires for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Dale Romans has expressed that Dullahan loves the Churchill surface, which the colt has trained on countless times. However, though Dullahan may work well over the surface, his poorest performances have come over that very track. Nonetheless, they were not terrible performances. He has finished a decent third, a jaded fifth, and a respectable fourth over the Louisville racetrack. Yet, each time, he has been defeated at least approximately 6 ¼ lengths. But he does seem to be a more mature colt as a sophomore and will have much more training time over the Churchill surface than most Derby contenders.

Clearly, a checkmark can be placed next to Dullahan’s name when it comes to the matter of a Derby pedigree. Though a mare has never produced more than one Kentucky Derby winner, the fact that Mining My Own – the dam of both Mine That Bird and Dullahan – has already produced two grade one winners and Brother Bird – an earner of over $140,000 – in her young broodmare career is very encouraging.

Mining My Own is a daughter of Smart Strike, a son of Mr. Prospector who is the sire of such horses as the two-time Horse of the Year Curlin who won four ten-furlong grade ones, the turf champion English Channel who was victorious in five grade ones at eleven furlongs or longer, and the Preakness Stakes (GI, 9.5F)-winning Lookin’ At Lucky. As a broodmare sire, Smart Strike has produced the dams of twenty-five stakes winners, including the group two-winning Strong Return, the champion Queen’s Plate Stakes (10F)-winning Inglorious, and the Hollywood Gold Cup (GI, 10F)-winning First Dude.

Dullahan is sired by a fairly unrecognized sire in Even the Score, a graded stakes winner by the significant sire Unbridled’s Song. Even the Score is also the sire of Take the Points, who won grade one turf races at nine and ten furlongs. Other offspring of Even the Score include the graded stakes-winning middle-distance filly Four Gifts, as well as the stakes-winning distance horse Scorewithcater, who ironically defeated Mine That Bird in the Borderland and Sunland Derbies. Even the Score has crossed well with mares like Mining My Own who descend from the Mr. Prospector sire line, producing such horses as the black-type-winning Enjoy the Score, the stakes-winning and group stakes-placed Amabo, and a plethora of winners.

Dullahan is inbred 5 X 3 to Mr. Prospector. Inbreeding to this influential superstar has been enormously efficacious, appearing in the pedigrees of such horses as the grade one winners Declan’s Moon, El Corredor, Flower Alley, Pleasant Home, Roman Ruler, Shadow Cast, Strategic Maneuver, Tapit, Volponi, and Whywhywhy.

Just to add to the grandeur of Dullahan’s bloodlines, he descends from female family twenty-three, which has been the root of the pedigrees of many brilliant racehorses, including the most recent American Triple Crown winner in Affirmed, the Canadian Triple Crown-winning female Dance Smartly, 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, the champion sprinter Big Drama, and a total of nine Kentucky Derby victors.

It is definitely logical to believe Dullahan can win the Kentucky Derby. Though he has not performed tremendously well over the Churchill surface, he is getting more training over it than most Derby contenders and is under the care of a trainer who has conditioned a top-four finisher in the past two runnings of the prestigious race. Furthermore, he is the half-brother to a Kentucky Derby winner in Mine That Bird and has a pedigree that suggests he can accomplish the same task as his brother. Dullahan certainly seems to have a better chance in the Derby than his half-brother did and unlike when Mine That Bird bounded through the mud to en route to a Derby victory, it would be no surprise to see Dullahan draped in red roses following the greatest two minutes in sports.

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