Heavily favored Dennis’ Moment was expected to dominate the 1 1/16-mile race that culminated Future Stars Friday and typically establishes the early Kentucky Derby favorite. He had broken his maiden by 19 ¼ lengths at Ellis Park in late July and set a stakes record despite being geared down in the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs in mid-September.
But, breaking from the rail for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and trainer Dale Romans, he stumbled at the start and never worked his way into the race from his unaccustomed position at the back of a pack reduced to eight horses by the scratch of Maxfield, an expected contender.
Jason Loutsch, racing manager for Albaugh Family Stable, knew the stumble would be ruinous the instant it occurred.
“It was over for him. He had not a chance from the start,” Loutsch said. “Dale just about took off out of the box when it started.”
Eight Rings, viewed as having such vast promise that he was named for the eight Super Bowl rings earned by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, surprisingly lacked punch in the stretch for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and faded to sixth.
“Everything was going great until the real race started,” Baffert said. “He didn’t show up.”
Dennis’ Moment had been a $400,000 purchase by Albaugh Family Stable as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga sale and was named for Iowa billionaire Dennis Albaugh, the family’s 70-year-old patriarch. Eight Rings was even pricier, a $520,000 buy at Keeneland’s September yearling sale.
Storm the Court? He sold for $60,000 in April as a 2-year-old in training. He made a winning debut in a 5 1/2-furlong contest on Aug. 10 at Del Mar, but the next two starts hardly pointed to a Juvenile triumph.
Jockey Flavien Prat failed to stay aboard in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity after he was bumped by an erratic Eight Rings. Storm the Court then ran third in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita, thoroughly beaten by 8 ¼ lengths by Eight Rings. Something important came out of the American Pharoah, though. Prat believes the youngster greatly benefitted from that two-turn experience; he also wisely suggested to trainer Peter Eurton the addition of blinkers.
“I thought last time he was a little green,” Prat said. “He was looking around and losing focus on the backside.”
With blinkers firmly in place leading to a sharper focus, Storm the Court, a bay son of Court Vision, broke sharply and took a lead he never relinquished in a race in which nothing went according to plan. Eurton expected his colt to be forwardly placed, but almost surely chasing Dennis’ Moment.
Instead, Storm the Court settled into an easy rhythm as a front-runner, going along in an unpressured manner through an opening quarter that went in 23.49 seconds, a half in 47.07 seconds, three-quarters in 1:11.60. John Velazquez, meanwhile, patiently tracked him in second with Eight Rings.
“They didn’t really take him seriously on the backside,” Eurton said, “so we had our way there.”
When the running got serious, Eight Rings began to backpedal while Anneau d’Or and little-known Juan Hernandez ranged up to challenge. How would Storm the Court respond?
“I knew he would fight,” Eurton said. “I just didn’t know how much.”
Well, the former $60,000 purchase was full of fight after Anneau d’Or collared him with a furlong to go. He dug in, unyielding, unwilling to allow his rival to pass. Anneau d’Or finally relented. The winner completed the distance in 1:44.93.
More importantly for at least a few of the fans who watched world-class, safe racing with the San Gabriel Mountains as a jaw-dropping backdrop at Santa Anita, he rewarded those who found a little something to like in him by lighting up the tote board to the tune of $93.80, $24.80 and $12.
That was hardly the only massive return. A $1 exacta ticket was worth $488.20, a 50-cent trifecta wager yielded $1,965.25, a 10-cent superfecta a gaudy $1,199.69.
Owners Exline-Border Racing, David Bernsen, Susanna Wilson, and Dan Huddock banked $1.1 million, not to mention a priceless memory.
Just as the result was nearly impossible to anticipate based on past performances, it is difficult to say what the result will mean going forward. Tiz the Law, 2-for-2 and coming off a commanding victory in the Oct. 5 Grade 1 Champagne Stakes, could wind up with the Eclipse Award as 2-year-old champion despite making the unorthodox move of turning back an expense-paid berth in the Juvenile. He is scheduled to make one last start this season, in the Nov. 30 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Or could it be 2-for-2 Maxfield?
Another issue revolves around what this startling outcome portends for the Kentucky Derby. Only two winners of the Juvenile, Street Sense in 2006 and Nyquist in 2015, went on to bring home the roses.
Understandably, none of that was on Eurton’s mind in a victory so unexpected it almost had to feel surreal.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, “except I’m so proud of this little horse.”