This Side Up: Proxy Steps In to Try that Unique Fit

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Champion and 'TDN Rising Star' Essential Quality | Breeders' Cup/Eclipse Sportswire

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Derby dreams at this time of year can prove as ephemeral as the vapours rising into the glacial air of Hot Springs. But the owner of the champion juvenile knows perfectly well that plans, with Thoroughbreds, can only ever be provisional–and that the postponement of Monday's Oaklawn card is a relatively trivial inconvenience to Essential Quality (Tapit). To recall the graver vexations that can unravel a Derby colt, Sheikh Mohammed needs only rewind to the last cycle, and the last colt that offered to requite perhaps the greatest single ambition still animating the biggest bloodstock empire in the breed's history.

Anyone with a sophomore of elite potential knows the highwire that axiomatically permits every Thoroughbred foal one opportunity, and one only, to contest the Kentucky Derby. If, with the approach of his third summer, he is not fit and well on the first Saturday in May, then fortune will never indulge him with a second chance. There might yet be greatness, a Travers or a Breeders' Cup. But there will be no Derby.

In 2020, however, the unprecedented (and arguably unnecessary) disordering of the Classic calendar offered some horses a reprieve even as it destroyed the fortunes of others. Nadal (Blame) and Charlatan (Speightstown) showed their readiness for the appointed hour, when the same track that is frozen this weekend salvaged an appropriate Grade I for sophomores on Derby day. Both colts, however, were sidelined by the time Churchill eventually staged a September Derby. In contrast, Maxfield (Street Sense) had appeared to be thrown a lifeline after a layoff that would have made a normal Derby very tight, if not impossible–only to be derailed by another setback in the summer.

Happily, Maxfield made a seamless resumption before Christmas to nourish hope the patience of all involved can be vindicated, and his full potential finally explored, by an uninterrupted campaign at four. Fitting, then, that he should be resuming Saturday in the GIII Mineshaft S.–a race honoring the 2003 Horse of the Year, who built with maturity on foundations laid so carefully in his European nursery.

Maxfield | Horsephotos

Among horsemen, after all, hope springs eternal. And while Maxfield provides a cautionary context, Godolphin certainly has some exciting young colts. Besides Essential Quality, there's the eye-watering Gulfstream maiden winner Prevalence (Medaglia d'Oro); while in yesterday's edition colleague Steve Sherack highlighted the prospects, down the line, of Speaker's Corner (Street Sense). Closer to hand, meanwhile, the deferral of the champion's reappearance switches attention to the aptly named Proxy (Tapit).

The GII Risen Star S. pitches this colt into a rematch with the pair who sandwiched him not only on the GIII Lecomte S. podium, but more or less from the moment the gate opened. That was not so much a horserace as a procession, all three basically holding their positions throughout as Midnight Bourbon (Tiznow) controlled a light pace. Seemingly Proxy's rider was intent on engaging Mandaloun (Into Mischief) in the stretch, which possibly helped the leader to hold out. Be that as it may, Proxy gets Johnny V. this time while stretching out to serve a pedigree lavishly seeded by Classic influences. As yet another string to the Tapit bow, alongside Essential Quality and Greatest Honour, Proxy is getting a solid grounding to help add mental maturity (has shied under pressure) to the palpable progress he is making in physical terms.

'TDN Rising Star' Mandaloun | Coady

It remains to be seen whether things can play out quite so conveniently for Midnight Bourbon this time, while Mandaloun must excel not to get caught wide again from gate 11. He certainly has the kind of family that is now supporting his sire, freshly gilded by Authentic, as a bona fide Classic stallion. Indeed, beyond the mare who became agent of its transfer to Juddmonte (bred first three dams), there's an unbroken Whitney line going back to 1918!

The big story bubbling under this race, of course, is Senor Buscador (Mineshaft). Joe Peacock, Jr.'s homebred looks an explosive talent and could put a smile on many faces at Remington Park, in the weeks leading up to May 1, if banking 50 Derby points here. He's a half-brother to Runaway Ghost (Ghostzapper), whose GIII Sunland Derby a couple of years ago remains the solitary graded stakes win among 1,158 overall for Todd Fincher. Veteran racetrackers everywhere would be thrilled to see Fincher consoled for the way Runaway Ghost had to leave the Churchill trail with injury.

Senor Buscador | Dustin Orona

It's not just Sheikh Mohammed, then, who knows how precarious a trek these horses are trying to make. So far as Godolphin is concerned, however, I hope it's right to perceive a wholesome shift in the way their Derby quest is viewed. Whether through its owner or the media, there was always something a little too politicized about winning the race “from the desert.” The Sheikh would still be deservedly gratified to realize that dream, but it would be no less a consummation of his unprecedented Turf career to get the job done from an American barn.

Thunder Snow (Ire) (Helmet {Aus}), himself a G2 UAE Derby winner, subsequently confirmed himself as eligible a Derby runner as Godolphin has found–yet his deranged antics on breaking were a bewildering reminder that nobody has ever cracked this challenge until that garland is over your horse's withers.

Proxy | Hodges Photography

Suffice to say, for now, that the Sheikh must be delighted with the work of his Stateside team. Maybe none of these horses will reach a sufficient peak to seize the hour on May 1, but right now nobody can know that. Godolphin, remember, have not even had a dozen Derby runners. People who talk of “failure” or “frustration” are forgetting the exorbitant ratios involved, just to get any colt out of the global crop into the Derby gate. They also need to remember that the more difficult this man finds a challenge, the more he enjoys it; and the more he will persevere.

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