Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers, and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the 147th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 1 at Churchill Downs.
Kirk Wycoff, owner of Three Diamonds Farm, is featured this week. He will give Fire At Will, winner of the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Presented by Coolmore America, a major test on dirt in the $300,000, Grade 2 Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes on Saturday at South Florida’s Gulfstream Park.
The dark bay or brown son of turf standout Declaration of War will be trying dirt for the second time. He won the Sept. 2 With Anticipation Stakes in his second career start when that race came off the turf at Saratoga Race Course. The former $97,000 purchase at Keeneland’s September yearling sale lit up the tote board when he delivered at 30.20-1 in the Juvenile Turf.
The upset helped Three Diamonds and Wycoff, managing partner of Philadelphia-based private equity firm Patriot Financial Partners, rank fifth nationally last season with $3,869,111 in purse earnings. Fire At Will is trained by Mike Maker and will be ridden in the Fountain of Youth by Kendrick Carmouche.
The 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top four finishers, according to a 50-20-10-5 scale.
PEDULLA: Where does the name Three Diamonds come from?
WYCOFF: At the time we had three young teenagers and we considered ourselves to have three diamonds (Kirby, Ashley, and Jordan).
PEDULLA: What led you to enter the racing business in 2004?
WYCOFF: I took riding lessons as a 10-, 11-, 12-year-old. I went to Franklin & Marshall College and was a little bored and took out my trainer’s license at Penn National [Race Course] when I was 19. I never missed a class and I graduated with honors.
PEDULLA: What is your operating philosophy?
WYCOFF: We enjoy all facets of racing, buying yearlings and 2-year-olds to develop.
PEDULLA: It looks as though you avoid big-ticket prospects.
WYCOFF: I’ve been lending money to people all my life, and I really dislike it when I don’t get it back. That’s the definition to me of buying a $300,000 or $400,000 yearling and having to run it for $50,000. We race horses that cost between $50,000 and $150,000.
PEDULLA: Is Jordan your racing manager?
WYCOFF: I would say he is more a partner than a manager, because I am very difficult to manage.
PEDULLA: Is it difficult sometimes to have a working relationship with your son?
WYCOFF: It’s very difficult on my wife (Debra) and his two sisters because we both enjoy a good debate. Often a debate will break out over family get-togethers. But we’re good friends, and we love each other and we respect each other’s opinions.
PEDULLA: What led you to choose the Juvenile Turf over the Juvenile?
WYCOFF: The performance in the Pilgrim. If it was a fast pace, we were going to win. If it was a slow pace, we were going to win. We had the best horse that day. You only get one time to run as a 2-year-old in the Breeders’ Cup, and we felt that race gave us the best chance.
PEDULLA: What was it like to win your first Breeders’ Cup race?
WYCOFF: Oh, it was just amazing. Very gratifying. It was a dream come true, really. We never really believed we could win a classic race or a Grade 1 on dirt, so we focused on turf racing because it fit our budget.
PEDULLA: How has Fire At Will developed from 2 to 3?
WYCOFF: He’s bigger and stronger. He was a fairly light 2-year-old, all legs and a little gangly. He’s filled out. He’s probably put on 100 or 150 pounds. But he won’t stun you in the paddock for a dirt race with these 16.2 [hands], 1,200-pound colts that everybody takes to those races. He is, I would say, a middleweight.
PEDULLA: What motivated you to run in the Fountain of Youth?
WYCOFF: The major turf races for 3-year-olds are really in the summer, the Belmont Derby Invitational, the Saratoga Derby … . We didn’t really want to take 90 days off to get ready for a big race. It seemed the right time to see if he could prove to us that he’s a good dirt horse.
PEDULLA: Is Mike completely on board with this? Has there been internal debate?
WYCOFF: This would be Mike Maker’s number one plan. He told me ‘You can count on Fire At Will for three wins this year and at least two of them will be on dirt.’ He worked brilliantly on dirt as Mike was getting him ready [as a 2-year-old].
PEDULLA: What kind of performance do you need to see in the Fountain of Youth to stay on the Derby trail?
WYCOFF: This is me talking, not the trainer, because he will be looking for different things. I would like to see him be one, two, or three and have something left at the finish. This is probably a little short for him, which may surprise you, having won at a mile at the Breeders’ Cup. This is a horse that has unbelievable stamina.
PEDULLA: Why did you select Kendrick Carmouche to ride?
WYCOFF: Kendrick rides a lot for us. He’s doing well in New York. He rode for us at Parx [Racing] 10 years ago, so I have a great relationship with Kendrick. When Luis Saez was called to ride Essential Quality in the Southwest [Stakes], I really wanted someone who knew the horse (Carmouche rode Fire At Will to victory in the Pilgrim).
PEDULLA: What would it mean if you could reach the Derby?
WYCOFF: Hard to say. The Derby is a very difficult race, very hard on 3-year-olds. We would want to go there thinking we had a chance because it can take a lot out of a horse. We would want to feel we had a reasonable chance to win.