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West Point Dreaming Big Again

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Terry Finley | Cecelia Gustavsson

By Chris McGrath

Everyone knows there is still an awfully long way to go: three months, simply to stay sound and dozens of staging posts, coast to coast, on the way. But if you can’t permit yourself a little daydream now, then really what’s the point?

For Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds, it’s a perennial dilemma. His partnerships are put together in pursuit of a dream. They operate at a level of the market where, spreading risk, you can buy a yearling with a stallion’s pedigree and see him break into the Classic picture. Yet everyone needs to understand the odds against that happening-above all, perhaps, when those odds actually start to diminish; when the dream appears that bit more tangible.

At least three West Point partnerships still have their hats in the ring as the Twin Spires gradually resolve themselves from a mirage into a substantial silhouette on the horizon. In the GIII Sam F. Davis S. at Tampa Bay Saturday, Graham Motion tests the eligibility of Still Dreaming (Flatter) to inscribe his name three below that of his half-brother, 2016 winner Nyquist (Uncle Mo), on the list of GI Kentucky Derby winners. Over in California, meanwhile, Jerry Hollendorfer is bringing along two West Point colts with credible interest in the first Saturday in May: Galilean (Uncle Mo), who takes the California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit) route in the $200,000 California Cup Derby on Presidents’ Day; and Gunmetal Gray (Exchange Rate), who grabbed a quarter when runner-up in the GIII Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita last weekend.

“At this point, early February, how many people are still harboring the dream?” asked Finley. “A hundred and fifty, probably? A little more? But not many more. You just have to be realistic. Everyone has to keep each other in check. We have to keep the partners in check. The trainers have to keep us in check. But we’ve got to keep them in check, too. Graham has won the Derby. Jerry has not. And don’t think that Jerry doesn’t lie awake at night thinking about giving a Derby speech.

“We’re all part of this industry we love that’s based on hopes and dreams. And the challenge for anybody in my position, with partners who have put up their hard-earned money, is to be able to tell them: ‘Listen, if we get lucky, we’re going to get on a path where we can dream.’ So we’re kind of on the precipice of that, with these three horses. We want people to dream while being realistic. That [balance] is the never-ending struggle, though I guess over the years we’ve learned, we’ve got a better sense of how to do that.”

Still Dreaming is named with more than a nod to Always Dreaming (Bodemeister), in whom West Point bought a stake after his success in a Gulfstream allowance race in March 2017. He promptly confirmed the merit of that expensive gamble by running away with the GI Florida Derby and proceeded to win the Run For The Roses.

“It was Ron Wiltse who came up with the name,” Finley said. “And I think it fits, because we are always still dreaming. There is some mojo with the name, that’s for sure.”

There is also an auspicious precedent for West Point and Motion bringing a rising sophomore to this part of the world, having won the GII Tampa Bay Derby with Ring Weekend (Tapit) in 2014. That colt was graduating straight from his maiden success, and something similar is now being asked of Still Dreaming, who broke his maiden in his second start at Laurel on the first day of the year.

“We’ve been together with Graham for quite a while,” said Finley. “He’s always so open, we have great discussions. And as soon as this horse won, we knew we couldn’t stay north a whole lot longer before shipping. So we got him down right away, and just put a circle around the Tampa Bay race. We figured it might be a touch easier than the [GIII] Holy Bull [S. last Saturday], and it gave us another week, so everything fell into place for this race to seem the right thing to do.”

Still Dreaming is the result of Seeking Gabrielle (Forestry)’s visit to Flatter just before Nyquist embarked on his unbeaten juvenile championship campaign. Hinkle Farms would return her to Claiborne the following spring, too, but by then Nyquist had earned her an audience with the farm’s marquee stallion War Front. Sure enough, the filly she delivered by War Front brought $1.75 million from Godolphin at Keeneland last September. With all due allowance for their different paternity, that made Still Dreaming look like value at $460,000 at the same auction the previous year. After all, he was good enough to meet the exacting standards of David Ingordo, recruited to the West Point prospecting team a couple of years ago.

“He’s a beautiful, beautiful horse,” Finley stressed. “We have a couple of partners in him, Chris Larsen and Rob Masiello, and the three of us really liked this horse. For a half to a Derby winner, we thought we’d probably have to put up quite a bit of money, but we sensed that his post position in the sale was in our favor, being so early [Hip 84] in a 4,000-horse sale. In a better spot he might have made quite a bit more.”

Like all West Point yearlings, the colt was sent to Eddie Woods to be broken. “And he’s really grown and developed and come forward the right way and, we hope, at the right time,” Finley observed. “It sure seems like that. Through the spring last year Eddie was saying, ‘You know what? Just give me a little more time with this colt. He’s a beautiful horse, he’s got a great mind, but he doesn’t need to be at the racetrack in April.’ He’s just a very cool horse. I know when Graham really likes one, and he has loved him ever since he got him in the middle of last summer. The horse has been on the improve for quite a few months.”

Though Justify (Scat Daddy) tore up the Triple Crown manual last year, there are many who will still feel that rawness must count against Still Dreaming when compared with Gunmetal Gray, who has six starts under his belt already. After breaking his maiden at Del Mar last August, he twice worked his way into the slipstream of champion-in-the-making Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}) at Grade I level: chasing him home in the American Pharoah S. and then closing from the rear for fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Gunmetal Gray’s finish to win the GIII Sham S. on his sophomore bow was very striking, but last Saturday’s race did not play out anything like that. He was never going to reel in Mucho Gusto (Mucho Macho Man) in such a small field over that slop, but finished off his race nicely for second.

“Mike [Smith] was happy with him, just knew he was in trouble at the half-mile pole when they weren’t going real fast in front,” Finley reported. “But you have to take those things as they come. The previous time, we had a really good set-up and benefited greatly. You can’t always get that, sometimes it’s going to work against you, but he got himself some more points and he’s kept the dream alive.

“I know Mike has indicated that the horse reminds him a lot of Giacomo (Holy Bull) and said to Jerry, ‘I’d really like to ride that horse back.’ We thought he took very good care of the horse. When you get a Hall of Famer that’s what you expect. It’s a marathon not a sprint.”

Hollendorfer has assured Finley that Gunmetal Gray’s bloodied hoof–presumably the result of squeezing as they left the gate–looked worse than it was. And he is evidently quite willing to take on champion Game Winner once again when he resurfaces in the GII San Felipe S. at Santa Anita Mar. 9.

“I think Jerry probably would lean towards that race, if you had to pin us down now,” Finley said. “I know you’ve got the champ coming back, which is certainly daunting. But you compare and contrast that with having to ship out of town, which is something we want to be doing as few times as possible before the first Saturday in May.”

Certainly Gunmetal Gray, bred by Lee Pokoik, is getting the sort of old-fashioned grounding that could help him pick up the pieces in the stretch chaos of Churchill.

“You look at the number of works,” said Finley with a laugh. “I don’t think there’s another horse in the country has put in more miles in breezes between Sept. 1 and now. Jerry will never lead one over there that’s short. So if they get beat, they either didn’t get a good set-up or just weren’t as good as the horses that finish in front of them.”

Gunmetal Gray was purchased for $225,000 at the OBS March Sale last year, having failed to meet his reserve at $85,000 at Keeneland the previous September. There was a still more remarkable transformation in the fortunes of Galilean, acquired from breeders Bar C Racing Stables, who purchased him in utero, for $60,000 from Eddie Woods’s Quarter Pole Enterprises at the Barretts Select Yearling Sale in 2017. Woods turned him round for a sale-topping $600,000 back at Barretts the following spring.

“It’s awesome to work with people like Eddie that when they tell you something, you can take it to the bank,” Finley said. “When you see a horse in that consignment, and he tells you this is the goods, you walk up to the ring and you’re ready to bid with confidence. And when you think how white-hot the top of the market is these days, it’s really nice to be able to walk out of a sale and think you might have your hands on the big dog without having had to pay $1.5 or $2 million. Six-hundred thousand is still plenty of money, but in relation to what we see time and again across the industry, we felt we were in pretty good shape if he could transfer his performances at the sales to the racetrack. And he has.”

Admittedly Galilean for now remains an intimidating talent in shallow waters, but his breeze proved a valid signpost to the class he exuded in carrying his speed through four quarters of 23-and-change when winning the King Glorious S. by nine lengths.

“It’s never easy, right?” said Finley. “You run a big number, you look like that, but it’s always in the back of your mind: ‘Well, he did it against Cal-breds.’ So you’re just constantly in flux, with a horse like this as you’re trying to figure out where you’re at. We know he’s going to be 1-9 [in the Cal Cup Derby Monday]. But there are some people in our organization who say he’s the most talented of the three horses we’ve discussed. They’re all different, though, and different people will think different things.”

Even Galilean’s one defeat by a neck to Bob Baffert’s ‘TDN Rising Star’ Cruel Intention (Smiling Tiger) on his second start contained its positives as he had become embroiled in a torrid contest for the early lead and still finished 16 lengths clear of the third.

“He was up against a good colt, actually one also bought at that last Barretts sale,” Finley said. “And our horse was on the inside, he had a battle [up front] that lasted 3/8ths of a mile. And I think maybe we’ll look back and say that was all part of the learning process. It certainly got us all thinking about the next six months.”

Plenty of Triple Crown ripples across the West Point pond, not to mention the half-sister to Justify, Egyptian Storm (Pioneerof The Nile), approaching her much-anticipated debut for Christophe Clement. Co-owned with R.S. Evans, she was picked up for $230,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September Sale when Justify was listed on the page as “a 2-year-old of 2017.”

“She’s getting there,” Finley reported. “She’s worked a couple of 5/8ths [at Payson Park] and you’ll see her among the entries, going long on the turf, next couple of weeks, hopefully in a race at Tampa February 16.”

All these horses reflect positively on Ingordo’s arrival on the West Point team.

“David has an infrastructure he brings that I think has really helped us in any number of ways,” said Finley. “But as you get older, you realize the wisdom of what Harry Truman said, ‘It’s amazing what can get done when nobody’s worried who gets the credit.’ We want a team and, when it comes right down to it, everything starts with the partners. If they don’t have the confidence, if they don’t put their hard-earned money up, we don’t go to the sales as aggressively as we do.

“We want to get better every day. We beat ourselves up all the time. We try to make good decisions with good data and good information. We know it can’t always turn out to be the right decision. But it’s just really fun trying to apply the business and military principles we’ve learned to this crazy, wacky business we call racing.”

And, whatever still awaits on the road to Louisville, enough good calls have already been made for three partnerships still to be legitimately dreaming. West Point is working on a Derby starter for the fourth time in six years. In 2014, Commanding Curve (Master Command) fought his way from the rear at 38-1 to finish second to California Chrome in 2014; and last year My Boy Jack (Creative Cause) also closed from the back, despite a rough trip, for fifth to Justify.

“You just have to keep your feet on the ground,” Finley said. “We just keep telling ourselves how incredibly lucky it is. And if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just have to get ready for 2020.”

He pauses, and laughs. “What else you gonna do?”

 

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