By Chris McGrath
The Turf has no other odyssey quite like the one that ends at Churchill Downs. Where the Epsom original becomes ever less diverse, thanks to an inundation of two-bit speed in the European gene pool, the Kentucky Derby remains a faithful index of the grandeur and variegation of America’s cultural self-image.
From coast to coast, the thousands of potential winners who grazed their first spring pasture three years ago are now being winnowed down, trial by trial, to the 20 who finally share that momentous walk from the backside on the first Saturday in May. And they will convene, in the heart of the continent, from every point of the compass-both geographically and socially.
There may be a Chip Woolley, swinging along on his crutches after the long drive from New Mexico; or there may be a bunch of guys who arrive in a yellow school bus. But every single Thoroughbred foaled in 2017 had a shot and, while they will also need luck, those who make the gate will do so on merit.
Doesn’t matter where your journey started. What does matter are the choices you make, as navigator. And there can’t be many horsemen more deserving of our attention, by either measure, than those who test the mettle of Anneau d’Or at Fair Grounds today.
Start with his octogenarian owner. As a boy, Peter Redekop shared the traumas of a Mennonite community that fled persecution in Ukraine, his family eventually making it to British Columbia. Having started out picking hops and berries, he built up a real estate and construction business that funded not just a variety of philanthropic projects (including a business school at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg; and the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, B.C.), but also a racing stable.
Though devoted to the sport in British Columbia, and a cherished figure at Hastings racetrack, Redekop has been heartened by the wider success of local achievers like John Gunther and Chuck Fipke. And he has himself already sampled the biggest stage of all, Cause To Believe (Maria’s Mon) having finished in the pack behind Barbaro (Dynaformer) in the 2006 Kentucky Derby after winning the GIII El Camino Real Derby.
Today, his silks will again be carried in the latter race by a colt bearing the instructive name Ajourneytofreedom (Hard Spun). He is a half-brother to Anothertwistafate (Scat Daddy), who won last year’s running before giving Redekop a second taste of the Classic elixir in the GI Preakness S. (albeit ultimately disappointing and unraced thereafter).
Anothertwistafate having failed to earn a gate in the Kentucky Derby, Redekop and trainer Blaine Wright have shipped Anneau d’Or from his home track to New Orleans for the GII Risen Star S., now a 170-point bonanza after splitting into two divisions (each carrying 50-20-10-5). That’s a pretty adventurous move, but two far bigger calls have been made with the horse today: blinkers, and a new jockey.
These are the kind of decisions by which a horseman earns his passage to the Derby. And let’s remember that people like Wright, who was raised in the game and served on the gate crew for a while, are the lifeblood of the business. His father Richard, previously a jockey, saddled 963 winners on the Pacific Northwest circuit–a single one of which came in stakes company.
To borrow a shedrow axiom favoured by D. Wayne Lukas, this horse could be “the chance of a lifetime, in a lifetime of chance”. And his owner is not a young man. Prospecting through agent Alistair Roden, Redekop stretched to $480,000 for this big, strong beast after he clocked 21: 1/5 at OBS last April. And the three juvenile starts made by Anneau d’Or absolutely kept the Derby dream alive–to the extent that it’s time, now, to acknowledge that some dreams are so fragile that they can only be kept intact with ruthless realism.
Hitherto Anneau d’Or has been ridden by Juan Hernandez. Regulars on their home circuit were doubtless gratified to see Hernandez get his shot at the big money, when an eight-length debut winner on turf at Golden Gate was fast-tracked to the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and then the GI Los Alamitos Futurity.
But, with only one more start scheduled before May–a dozen Derby points have already been banked–remember, Wright must also address the possibility that Anneau d’Or has failed to put races to bed because of some inherent lack of focus: immaturity, perhaps, or indolence. He wore blinkers in his breeze show at OBS and, having looked alert in morning tests, gets them back today.
As a comeback race, admittedly, the Risen Star (now extended through a ninth furlong) is the very reverse of the old-school, sprint relaunch discussed in this space last week. But this is the modern way, the first of just two preps specifically tailored to the kind of demands awaiting on Derby day. We’ve already seen the rudiments of a Classic performer in Anneau d’Or: even as it stands, he has squared up to the champion juvenile, Storm The Court (Court Vision), and an unbeaten Baffert machine in Thousand Words (Pioneerof The Nile). As the proven class in the field he has drawn, however, today he must put it all together.
His pedigree suggests an auspicious equilibrium between Classic stamina and the pace to hold a workable position among 19 other horses with their sleeves rolled up. By Medaglia d’Oro out of a Tapit mare has an immediate, two-turn resonance; equally the second dam, multiple stakes winner and Grade I-placed juvenile Spring Awakening (In Excess), set a track record over 5 1/2 furlongs at Del Mar in 1:04.6.
Anneau d’Or is the first foal of Walk Close, who won the GIII Modesty H. on grass; and Medaglia d’Oro is obviously by a turf colossus in El Prado (Ire). So, while his palpable felicity on dirt attests to the trademark versatility of his sire, you can see why Anneau d’Or started out “on the weeds”. In fact, Wright was originally targeting the Juvenile Turf at the Breeders’ Cup until the dirt race came up with lighter numbers. As so often with Thoroughbreds..another twist of fate!
The third dam was an unraced daughter of Carson City whose mother should not, perhaps, have been permitted to register a name as important as Catnip. (The original was one of the most pivotal purchases ever made–for just 75 guineas at Tattersalls–by Federico Tesio: she would give him the brilliant Nogara, dam of Nearco.) This Catnip, to be fair, had distinction of her own: a daughter of the Californian stalwart, Flying Paster, she was a half-sister to GI Belmont S. winner Editor’s Note (Forty Niner) and European Group 1-winning juvenile Hold That Tiger (Storm Cat). They are all out of a half-sister to the dam of both Hennessy (Storm Cat) and GI Ballerina H. winner Pearl City (another daughter of Carson City); and also to the dam of two juvenile Grade I-winning fillies in champion Family Style (State Dinner) and Lost Kitty (Magisterial). All this is backed up by several generations of C.V. Whitney blood.
Anneau d’Or was bred in Kentucky by Highland Yard, and consigned at OBS by Tom McCrocklin for pinhookers Solana Beach Sales after going through Keeneland the previous September as an $170,000 R.N.A. But hats off to Louisa Lenehan of Lochlow Farm, who in the meantime gambled $550,000 on his dam-who is still only nine–when she appeared at Fasig-Tipton November with an Uncle Mo cover. (Still a very decent dividend for Highland Yard, who had picked up Walk Close as a yearling for $180,000.)
So interest in this horse stretches from Vancouver to Virginia. Like we said: the road to the Derby unites the continent. Since shipping to the third coast, meanwhile, Anneau d’Or has been lodging in the barn of Wright’s former employer Grant Forster.
There’s a surname that will also resonate in B.C. racing. Good luck, then, to all involved today. To Hernandez, too: he rides leading hometown hope Indian Peak (Comic Strip) in the El Camino Real Derby. But especially to Mr. Redekop, a man who really understands what is meant by an “odyssey”.
This is the moment for Anneau d’Or to show that he has the verve to avoid the fate of Risen Star himself in the Derby, when shuffled back from the rails draw before arriving too wide and late for third. Of course, the Bayou legend put that right in the remaining two legs of the series, evoking his sire Secretariat in winning the Belmont by nearly 15 lengths in 2:26 2/5.
Even if the blinkers and Rosario together don’t make an ounce of difference, you can already see Anneau d’Or as a viable Belmont type himself. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just hope that he can keep on the right page of this wonderful Classic atlas.