Can Signalman Outrun Purchase Price, Pedigree on Derby Trail?

Signalman broke through with his first graded stakes win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.
Signalman broke through with his first graded stakes win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.

This week we take a closer look at Signalman, winner of the Grade 2, $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs.


Bay Colt

Sire (Father): General Quarters

Dam (Mother): Trip South, by Trippi

Owner: Tommie M. Lewis, David A. Bernsen, and Magdalena Racing

Breeder: Monticule (Ky.)

Trainer: Ken McPeek

Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile third-place finisher Signalman returned in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and confirmed that his performance at 67.50-1 odds at the Breeders’ Cup was no fluke with a victory on Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs. Let’s take a closer look at the bay colt by General Quarters.

Ability: After running second going five-eighths of a mile on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs in his career debut in May, Signalman won his second career start at Saratoga Race Course on Sept. 1. Stretching out to seven-eighths of a mile, Signalman nipped Lion Dance by a nose to prevail.

He earned an 84 Equibase Speed Figure for his victory after posting an 81 in his debut — solid but not eye-catching figures — but simply winning a maiden race at Saratoga where 2-year-old races are extremely competitive made Signalman, a $32,000 purchase by trainer Ken McPeek as a yearling, one to watch.

Five weeks later he rallied from sixth for a runner-up finish, albeit beaten by 5 ½ lengths, to front-running Knicks Go in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland Race Course.

Signalman took a small step forward to an 87 Equibase Speed Figure in the Breeders’ Futurity, but the race did not garner much respect and, like Knicks Go, he was generally dismissed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Heavily favored Game Winner won the Juvenile at even-money, but those who believed in the quality of the Breeders’ Futurity were richly rewarded when Knicks Go held on for second at 40.50-1 and Signalman ran third at 67.50-1.

The Juvenile represented a significant improvement from Signalman as he registered a new career-top 97 Equibase Speed Figure.

Three weeks later in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Knicks Go (3.10-1) and Signalman (3.60-1) were the favorite and second betting choice for the 1 1/16-mile race at Churchill.

Jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. guided Signalman to a ground-saving trip on the sloppy racetrack and the two looked absolutely loaded approaching the stretch. Knicks Go, who had pressed the pace through a swift half-mile in :46.83, had no fuel in the tank for the stretch run but Signalman split horses to take command and then held off closer Plus Que Parfait to win by a neck.

“This horse always gave me a lot of confidence,” Hernandez said. “I was able to get him up into the race early and he really showed what he could do. … Down the lane he was actually looking over at the TV screen. Even with the little quirks he still shows a lot of promise. He’ll be exciting down the road.”

Signalman earned a 94 Equibase Speed Figure for his first career stakes win and continued a consistent strong of solid performances. The average winning speed figure for the Kentucky Derby over the last 10 editions has been a 107.5, so like almost all of his peers, Signalman will need to continue to develop and run faster. The 1 ¼-mile Derby distance, as we’ll explore in the pedigree section, also could be a concern, but as the calendar turns to December later this week Signalman looks like a developing prospect with plenty of room to improve.

Running style: Signalman rallied from far back in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and also in his debut, but drawing the outside post in a 13-horse field complicated his trip in the Juvenile. In both the Breeders’ Futurity and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, Signalman settled into a stalking position and was within 3 ½ lengths of the pace after the first half-mile in both races. I expect his connections to continue to try for that type of trip for Signalman as trainer McPeek said after the Kentucky Jockey Club: “I love the way Brian rode him.”

Signalman after the race
Signalman after the race (Eclipse Sportswire)

Connections: Trainer Ken McPeek purchased Signalman out of the 2017 Fasig-Tipton October yearling sale on behalf of the partnership of Tommie M. Lewis and Magdalena Racing, which is the racing operation of McPeek’s wife, Sherri McPeek. David A. Bernsen purchased an interest in Signalman after the Breeders’ Futurity.

Ken McPeek finished second in the 1995 Kentucky Derby with Tejano Run and won the Belmont Stakes in 2002 with 70.25-1 longshot Sarava. He also won the 2012 Travers Stakes with Golden Ticket.

McPeek has amassed more than 1,600 career victories since he took out his trainer’s license in 1985, including multiple Grade 1 victories with Take Charge Lady and Harlan’s Holiday.

Jockey Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr. has won 1,874 races, including 126 stakes, through Nov. 26. He won the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap and the Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Fort Larned in 2012 and added a win with Fort Larned in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap the following year. Hernandez has had two runners in the Kentucky Derby to date, most recently finishing eighth aboard McCraken in 2017.

Pedigree: Like Signalman, General Quarters was a racehorse that exceeded expectations. After he was claimed for $20,000 out of his career debut, General Quarters went on to win Grade 1 races on all-weather and turf for owner-trainer Tom McCarthy. He won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in 2009 and competed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness that year.

General Quarters has sired 45 winners from 78 starters, including three stakes winners. Signalman is General Quarters’ leading earner to date while multiple stakes winner Mia Torri has placed in a pair of graded stakes and earned $314,720 in her career. He has been standing at stud in Turkey after he was sold at the 2016 Keeneland November breeding stock sale.

Signalman is one of four winners from as many starters out of the Trippi mare Trip South, who was sold for $1,700 at the same 2016 Keeneland November breeding stock sale as General Quarters. Trip South was unraced.

Signalman’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Summer Sweetheart, by Honor Grades, won twice at 4 ½ furlongs and never competed in a race longer than three-quarters of a mile.

Digging a little deeper in the pedigree reveals graded stakes winners Diamond Stripes and Summer Note, but the bottom half of this pedigree is heavy on speed while Signalman is the lone standout to date for sire General Quarters.

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