Jeff Ruby Winner Two Phil’s a Triumph for the ‘Little Guys’

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Two Phil's Jeff Ruby Steaks Turfway Park Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve
The connections of Two Phil’s celebrate his victory March 25 at Turfway Park in the $700,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks under Jareth Loveberry. (Coady Photography)

The last week has been nothing short of a fairytale for the Sagan family.

Just five days ago on a blustery afternoon at Turfway Park, they watched as their first homebred, Two Phil’s, soared down the stretch to capture the $700,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks, thus solidifying a spot in the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.

Ironically, the now-top contender on the Derby leaderboard with a mighty 123 points, was a horse that no one seemed to want after two failed attempts at the sales in both his yearling and 2-year-old years.

“We were in Book 1 at Keeneland [2021 September yearling sale] and we couldn’t sell him, we tried, he [did not meet his reserve price]. Everyone came to look at him and no one liked him,” said Anthony Sagan. “Then we went to OBS with Jimmy Gladwell and his daughter Nellie. They broke him in the wintertime and really liked him; he actually worked as well as Arabian Knight and a few of the top contenders.

“He went to OBS and worked [an eighth of a mile in] :10 2/5 at the sale and didn’t like the surface, didn’t have a good day. No one liked him over there; we couldn’t sell him. We were trying to get $100,000 and we couldn’t get it.”

Deciding to cut their losses, the Sagan’s put the Hard Spun colt into training with Larry Rivelli in Illinois at his Hawthorne Race Course base. Shortly after, they formed a racing partnership with Vince Foglia of Patricia’s Hope, and picked a name for the colt.

“My father is Phillip and my friend Jerry La Sala, who got us started, his father’s name is also Phil. They’re both in their 80s and they’re both characters,” Sagan said. “They really are. Someone in my family came up with it ... everyone loved it, it stuck, and we went with it.”

Two Phil's Jeff Ruby Steaks Turfway Park Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve
Two Phil's with Mia Torri (Courtesy of Anthony Sagan)

La Sala, a retired jockey and family friend of the Sagans, pushed them toward purchasing their first horse several years back when he found a General Quarters filly in Florida. The elder Sagan spent his career in the advertising business and despite owning harness horses in the past, had never quite dipped his toes into Thoroughbreds until purchasing the filly.

Named Mia Torri for the elder Sagan’s mother-in-law, the filly would go on to become a dual stakes winner in 2017 with wins in the Sunshine Millions Distaff Stakes and the Sugar Maple Stakes. She also recorded two runner-up finishes in Grade 3 races, including the 2016 Charles Town Oaks and the Bed o’ Roses Invitational Stakes in June 2017, which would be the last start of her career.

After fracturing her sesamoid, the now 10-year-old mare retired at 4 with $314,720 in the bank from 10 starts.

“We were deciding what to do, whether to sell her. I came up with the idea of ‘let’s breed her.’ We put her on a farm in Kentucky with Spruceton Farm, Elise Handler, who still has her and has done a great job with her,” Sagan said.

“We went to lunch with Jerry and Steve Leving, who is Jareth Loveberry’s jockey agent now, which is a coincidence, but at the time, he was the one who talked us into breeding to Hard Spun. He’s kind of a breeding guy and said ‘this is a good match for you.’ That’s how we got to Hard Spun. The first baby came out and didn’t make it, it died. The second live foal is now Two Phil’s.”

Though the chestnut colt began his career with a fifth in a maiden special weight last June at Churchill Downs, he was in the winner’s circle after his next two starts including a maiden at Colonial Downs and the Shakopee Juvenile Stakes at Canterbury Park, both going six furlongs on the dirt. Next out at Keeneland he came seventh in the 1 1/16-mile Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity, which was a major turning point in his career according to Sagan.

Two Phil's Jeff Ruby Steaks Turfway Park Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve
Two Phil's as a foal. (Courtesy of Anthony Sagan)

“We drew the 12, we were 70-1, I think Larry wanted to see if he could compete and give him a test drive,” Sagan said. “Everyone going into the race told me he had no chance, doesn’t belong and turning for home he was fourth sitting five lengths off. He got beat 10 lengths and split the field.

“Jareth got off the horse and I was there, he was smiling. Most jocks, when they run seventh, they get off and they’re not smiling. He said ‘This horse is better going long.’ ... If it wasn’t for that race, this horse might have been in a seven-furlong, mile type of range for the rest of the way. ... We always knew he was going to be a really nice horse but we never dreamed he’d be like this.”

The dream has morphed into reality as Two Phil’s blazed through the remainder of his 2-year-old year, firing off a 5 1/4-length victory in the Grade 3 Street Sense Stakes last October at Churchill. He continued his forward motion into 2023 with a second to Instant Coffee in the Jan. 21 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds and returned to the New Orleans track a month later for third in the Feb. 18 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford behind Angel of Empire and Sun Thunder.

Despite his big runs ahead of the Jeff Ruby starting gate on Saturday, the colt’s connections were brought to the edge of their seats as they wondered if they would make it to the first Saturday in May. In response, Two Phil’s took his time around the Florence, Ky. surface, sitting patiently right off the pace until overwhelming Major Dude in the stretch to run away a 5 1/4-length winner under jockey Jareth Loveberry.

It was only mere seconds after the pair crossed the finish line when eruptions of cheers resounded and tears were shed — all in disbelief from the display of raw talent from a “horse nobody wanted.”

“Everybody knew this was our shot. If he runs well here, we’re in the Derby, and if he doesn’t, we’re not,” Sagan said. “Everyone was on pins and needles. ... It’s a great story, it’s a great feeling, we couldn’t be more happy, and there will be a lot of Two Phil’s fans at Churchill, I’ll tell you that.

“The horse is not supposed to do what he’s done, he’s progressively gotten better and better and he’s kind of a freak to be honest. My father started with one horse in this game and out came Two Phil’s. ... Horse racing is a crazy game and that’s why people play it. If only the best horses and best breeds won, the little guys wouldn’t play.”

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