By Joe Bianca
In the winter of 1990, trainer Neil Howard was preparing to bring back an undefeated colt named Summer Squall (Storm Bird) for his 3-year-old debut, with hopes of conditioning his first GI Kentucky Derby winner. The bay, owned by Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable, went five-for-five in his juvenile campaign, culminating with a victory in the GI Hopeful S. at Saratoga.
After suffering his first defeat when second in the GIII Swale S. to open his sophomore account, Summer Squall annexed the GII Jim Beam S. and GII Blue Grass S. and was heavily backed at 21-10 to capture the Derby. He was no match for his rival Unbridled (Fappiano) that day, however, running second after the eventual champion 3-year-old colt roared by him in the stretch. Many remember the touching scene of Unbridled’s trainer, Carl Nafzger, giving play-by-play to tearful owner Frances Genter, as her colt crossed the wire, telling her “You won! You won the Kentucky Derby!” Fewer remember that Summer Squall answered back two weeks later to squash Unbridled’s Triple Crown hopes with a convincing victory in the GI Preakness S.
Nearly three decades later, the 67-year-old Howard is back with his best shot at a Derby victory since that spring in the form of Guest Suite (Quality Road). The homebred gelding, owned by Lora Jean Kilroy and Howard’s longtime client William S. Farish, conquered the muddy GIII Lecomte S. this past weekend at Fair Grounds in his first start since Nov. 26. He is being tentatively pointed to the GII Risen Star S. Feb. 25 at Fair Grounds.
“He came out of the race well,” Howard said. “He’s only been back to the track a day or so, but he looks well. Usually with these things, that first start off of a little layoff, an off track, you want to wait a few days to see if the stuff that happens, body soreness, etc. pops up. I haven’t seen anything like that. We’ll give it 7-8 days and go from there, provided everything going smoothly.”
In addition to Summer Squall’s exploits, Howard is best remembered for campaigning Farish’s Mineshaft (A.P. Indy) to four Grade I victories and Eclipse Awards for Horse of the Year and Champion Older Male in 2003.
Howard says that Mineshaft’s accomplishments were the most satisfying moments of his training career, because of what they represented for the Farish family and their historic Lane’s End Farm operation.
“For all that they have put into the game,” Howard explains, “Mineshaft was a product and an illustration of everything these people do on Lane’s End Farm every day. Mr. Farish holds this industry and its breeding so dear. For him to have that horse and the culmination of winning the [GI] Jockey Club Gold Cup, which is such an important race to him, was the highlight of my career.”
Howard, a native of The Bronx, N.Y., credits his relationship with Farish to his longtime friendship with Lane’s End farm manager Mike Cline.
“I was fortunate enough that my closest friend happens to be Mr. Farish’s farm manager from day one,” Howard says of Cline. “We worked together for [Hall of Fame trainer] Mack Miller. Mike, his dad John and his brother Pete were well-versed all their lives around broodmares and the breeding industry. Mike got me a job when I was trying to transition from Ohio to Kentucky, nature took its course, I was able to start breaking some babies [at Lane’s End] and we’ve had a very lucky and fortunate relationship since we started.”
There are many other more steps to go for Guest Suite to even make it into the starting gate at the May 6 Derby, but in an industry where partnerships can sometimes be dissolved at the drop of the hat, it would be immensely rewarding for Howard to have some Triple Crown success for his decades-long supporters.
“I’ve been so doggone lucky to be associated with these people,” Howard says of his relationship with the Farishes. “There’s no way any trainer could put into words what it would mean to accomplish something like that for clients like them. There’d be no way to describe it. How could you even think of it?”
Howard made sure to emphasize that he and Mr. Farish never get ahead of themselves and he hasn’t allowed himself to think as far as the Derby, since that goes against the entire ethos of the patient, horse-first Lane’s End breeding and racing legacy.
“We all know how much has to go right, how many steps there are along the way, how much luck there is involved,” Howard said. “Mr. Farish understands that process better than anyone.”