Trainers can be influenced by what happens – and what does not happen – in major races.
When Bourbon War finished fourth in the Florida Derby behind Maximum Security, Bodexpress, and Code of Honor, leaving him short of having enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve, trainer Mark Hennig became more than a casual spectator of the opening leg of the Triple Crown.
Hennig was elated when Maximum Security and Code of Honor performed well in the run for the roses, even if Maximum Security, a winner by a length and three-quarters, was disqualified by the stewards for interference and placed 17th. It was indisputable that he had run extremely well, as had Code of Honor, who was placed second to longshot Country House.
It was enough to make Hennig and the owners of Bourbon War, Bourbon Lane Stable and Lake Star Stable, rethink plans that had them using last Saturday’s Grade 3 $300,000 Peter Pan Stakes as a prep for the Belmont Stakes on June 8. The 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes this coming Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, with its purse of $1.5 million, suddenly looked far more appealing.
“After watching the Derby and seeing Code of Honor and Maximum Security run so well, we just felt like the horse was deserving and worthy of a start in a Triple Crown race,” Hennig said. “And, yeah, we could have run in the Peter Pan and waited around and hope we have a shot in the Belmont. But as we saw in the Derby, things happen that prevent horses from making a race.”
He was referring, of course, to what did not happen in the Kentucky Derby. Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, 68, never got the big shot at an elusive triumph he longed for when favored Omaha Beach had to be scratched due to an entrapped epiglottis, a breathing issue that required minor surgery.
The rather insignificant matter became major due to its timing. Omaha Beach will miss all of the Triple Crown races, contributing to Hennig’s willingness to take a harder look at the Preakness and decide to enter after a conference call with the owners. The colt, who will again be ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., will break from post No. 2. He is listed at 12-1 on the morning line.
“He’s doing well,” Hennig said. “Why not seize the opportunity when we can?”
Hennig knows what it takes to be competitive in the Preakness. He saddled Personal Hope to a fourth-place finish in 1993. Eddington ran third for him in 2004.
Bourbon War has shown potential from the time he was purchased for $410,000 at the 2016 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale. The son of prized sire Tapit won his debut Nov. 14 at Aqueduct racetrack and looked good enough doing it that he was brought back quickly to compete in the Dec. 1 Remsen. The quick turnaround may well have contributed to a fourth-place finish.
Bourbon War made an auspicious 3-year-old debut, defeating runner-up Cutting Humor in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race on Jan. 18 at Gulfstream Park. Cutting Humor would go on to win the Sunland Derby and to be 10th in the Kentucky Derby.
Bourbon War then placed second to Code of Honor in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream before his late-running fourth in the Florida Derby. Those experiences prompted the addition of blinkers for the Preakness.
“He just kind of looked like he got out of his rhythm in the Florida Derby a little bit and even in the Fountain of Youth when he swung wide and took a minute to switch leads,” Hennig noted. “I think if he had transitioned a little better in that turn, he might have been even closer to Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth.”
Clearly, Bourbon War prefers to do his serious running late. The blinkers are not an attempt to take away his natural running style.
“We have no intention of trying to be part of the pace. I don’t think anybody has got that in mind,” Hennig said. “It’s just that you’d like him to be a little more focused … I don’t know that it puts us that much closer to the pace as much as it puts us that much more in the game.”
In a game that requires constant adjustments, Hennig must hope he hit on the right ones.