This Side Up: No Proxy For The One And Only

Two Phil's | Coady Photography

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Unfortunately, they only have one Two Phil's (Hard Spun). If they had another, presumably making Four Phils in all, then they might yet have the consolation of a proxy in the big races through the second half of the season. As it is, we can only offer our sympathy to the heartbroken team around a horse that brought us such precious cheer during what is proving a challenging year for our sport.

Because that's the whole point, really. The big programs would be able to temper their disappointment, on losing the services even of a horse as accomplished as Two Phil's, with the likelihood that an equivalent talent will eventually come along. And it was precisely because the circle of friends who launched Two Phil's towards the top of his crop did so by such accessible investment–he's out of the only Thoroughbred ever purchased by the Sagan family, a $40,000 daughter of a failed stallion–that so many of us identified with their cause. They made us feel we all had a chance.

Two Phil's, moreover, had been progressing from a somewhat sentimental, blue-collar rooting interest to a perfectly credible candidate for what feels an open sophomore championship. He was the only contributor to the GI Kentucky Derby pace that managed to hang tough, and looked better than ever on his first start since in the GIII Ohio Derby last weekend. How maddeningly typical of this game, then, that even in opening up new horizons his owners should suddenly reach a dead end.

They must now regroup, clear their heads and find Two Phil's his best chance at stud. His maternal family contains its challenges, but that is true of a lot of good stallions and something, after all, is demonstrably functioning in his genetic make-up. There is an increasing burden on sons of War Front and Hard Spun to maintain the shortest available connection to their breed-shaping sire Danzig, and Two Phil's certainly bears an auspicious resemblance to his excellent sire. Both proved their adaptability by winning the same Derby trial on a synthetic surface, before proceeding to finish second at Churchill. On the right farm, I'm sure that Two Phil's has every chance of writing a new chapter in the fairytale; and his connections have played their cards too faultlessly to need any help in determining which farm might be the right one.

In the meantime, we must just thank them for introducing this authentic ray of sunshine into our present darkness. As I've noted before, that rogue apostrophe actually became part of what the horse stood for: a symbol of his quirky, aberrational advent among those who set expensive standards at the top of the market. He arrived as a defiant Chicago gesture, many in his entourage having been deprived of their natural habitat–and one of the jewels of the racing planet–by the closure of Arlington Park by the very people who host the Derby.

One of those cast adrift from Arlington was trainer Larry Rivelli, whose prospects of replacing the irreplaceable should at least be enhanced by having drawn national attention to gifts already well familiar on his home circuits. In this bittersweet week, indeed, Rivelli has saddled six winners from nine starters; and these included two “Derby” winners in one weekend, with Act A Fool (Oscar Performance) making it four off the reel in the Hawthorne Derby last Sunday. Hopefully Jareth Loveberry, also integral to the horse's development, will now be able to consolidate, as well, having earned his stripes all the way through from Great Lakes Downs.

Proxy (outside) wins the GII Oaklawn Handicap | Coady Photography

But if some of these guys end up never quite retrieving the same heights, at least they all seized their opportunity when it came. And they would surely choose the shorter ride they took with Two Phil's over the “better” luck experienced by many others, in being able to restore a horse to training after being derailed before the Classics?

It's not as though there's a piece of paper anyone gets to sign, but how would you choose between Two Phil's or a horse like, say, Proxy (Tapit)? Having disappeared for 10 months after trying to get to his own crop's Derby via the Fair Grounds trials, Proxy lines up for the GI Stephen Foster S. on Saturday as a mature horse, with every prospect of building on what for now remains a fairly marginal prizemoney edge over Two Phil's. Since his comeback, he has also availed himself of a Grade I (in the Clark last fall). He's an admirable creature, in a field replete with similar types. But if you were in a crew that might very well only ever have one shot at the big time, would you not be swung by the fact that every Thoroughbred foal, from the moment it slithers into the straw, has one chance–and one chance only–to take you on the walk over for the Derby?

In the winter of 2021-22, certainly, the McPeek barn wasn't dreaming of the 2023 Stephen Foster for Smile Happy (Runhappy) and Rattle N Roll (Connect). The former at least made it to the Derby before his disappearance, but I'm delighted to see him back thriving now. He was bred by the charming Xavier Moreau, from a $57,000 daughter of Pleasant Tap. That was about as much as Xavier had ever spent on a mare, and tragically he lost her almost as soon as Smile Happy had emerged.

That's the thing about this game. Yes, absolutely, your little guys can beat the billionaires by breeding a Smile Happy, or a Two Phil's. But nor will they get any special treatment from Lady Luck, just because all their eggs might be in a single basket.

The only answer is an old one: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” If that can be in May, and get you anywhere near that blanket of roses, so much the better.

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