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.
Country House’s victory via disqualification of Maximum Security in the 2019 Kentucky Derby sparked intense debate about whether the racetrack stewards made the correct call. In fact, there seems to be a pretty even split between those who thought Maximum Security should have been disqualified for ducking out several lanes and interfering with multiple Derby runners and those who believe Maximum Security should have remained the winner. Of course, the official Kentucky Derby winner is Country House, so let’s take a look at his chances to excel as his 3-year-old season progresses. According to Jay Privman of Daily Racing Form, Country House will miss the Preakness Stakes after showing signs of illness.
Ability: There was a fairly simple reason Country House was 65.20-1 odds to win the Kentucky Derby: His credentials when compared with many of the other Derby runners were lacking, with only a maiden win to his credit and coming off a pair of losses by more than six lengths.
Now that Country House has a Kentucky Derby victory on his resume, how will he be viewed?
There will be a segment of the horse racing fan base that views Country House with skepticism because his biggest win to date came via disqualification.
At the same time, he delivered the best performance on the biggest stage of his career despite being three wide on the first turn and five wide on the second turn. Having watched the replay multiple times focusing only on Country House, the reality is he ran a monster race ... by leaps and bounds the best of his career.
You can disagree with the stewards’ decision and still respect what a huge step forward Country House took in the Kentucky Derby. He leveled off nicely in early stretch and battled bravely in covering the final quarter-mile in 25.46 seconds according to Trakus data.
Country House traveled 51 feet more than Maximum Security after breaking from stall 19 of 20 (the Derby used starting gates 2-20 for the 19 runners).
Country House earned a career-best 109 Equibase Speed Figure, 10 points better than the previous-best 99 he earned for finishing third in the Arkansas Derby. His Beyer Speed Figure improved eight points to a new top of 99. He continued a steady progression, according to TimeForm US, improving in each of his stakes races from a 104 when second in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford all the way to a 118 for the Derby. Brisnet gave Country House a 93 speed rating for the Derby win, and he’s earned between a 91 and 95 in each of his last five races.
“He's been on the improve,” trainer Bill Mott said. “He's been a big, backward type of horse. When he was a 2-year-old, he was one of those that didn't show us a lot until he got in the fall of the year and we ran him a couple times. And it seemed like the light bulb was starting to come on.”
Prior to the Kentucky Derby, in four starts in 2019, Country House won a maiden race by 3 ½ lengths in his third career start, finished second in the Risen Star, fourth by 6 ½ lengths in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, and third by 6 ¾ lengths in the Arkansas Derby on a sloppy track. He was never higher than 8-1 odds in those three stakes after his maiden win generated significant buzz, but until the Kentucky Derby he had fallen short of the lofty expectations.
“I really felt he was a horse that probably deserved to run in the Kentucky Derby. I mean, I saw him that way early on the winter — after we saw him break his maiden. I thought he was well-suited to the mile and a quarter,” Mott said. “When he ran in Louisiana, of course, we didn't gain much in the way of points in that race, and we needed some more to ensure a spot in the Derby.
“And I said all along, I said, this is a big, tough horse. And I said it's not the style now to go back in three weeks or two weeks or whatever. But I said this horse can do it. I said he's a big — he's just big and tough and durable. … He's a dream for a horse trainer because he's just — he's one like they trained in the old days.”
Running style: Country House is a closer who performs best when rallying from off the pace. In the Kentucky Derby, he showed a little more tactical speed than he had in previous races as he raced within five lengths of pacesetter Maximum Security through a half-mile and three-quarters of a mile. In a 19-horse field, that might have been the key to his strong performance as it allowed him to be in the clear on the outside at the top of the stretch.
Connections: The partnership of Mrs. J. V. Shields Jr., E. J. M. McFadden Jr., and LNJ Foxwoods owns Kentucky Derby winner Country House.
Maury Shields (Mrs. J. V. Shields Jr.) formerly worked in the special client services department at Sotheby’s in New York. Her father was the founder and chairman of Flowers Industries, a Georgia-based food company, and was a former democratic state senator. Her late husband, Jerry Shields, was a Georgetown University graduate who had a Wall Street career spanning 56 years. In 1982, he founded Shields & Co. with his brother David.
Jerry Shields bred Country House and had a longtime relationship with the late Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, who trained Shields’ Wagon Limit to a 34-1 upset victory in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Guinness McFadden (E. J. M. McFadden Jr.) is the nephew of Maury Shields. McFadden began his career in the Thoroughbred industry in 2007 at Three Chimneys Farm and now owns and operates Blackwood Stables in Kentucky.
LNJ Foxwoods is the racing operation of Larry, Nanci, and Jaime Roth, a parents-daughter team that jumped in to Thoroughbred ownership in 2012. Larry Roth made his fortune as a principle of eyewear company Marchon. Jaime Roth runs the family stable.
Three-time Eclipse Award winner Bill Mott was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998. Country House gave him his first victory in the Kentucky Derby. His lone previous U.S. classic success came with Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont Stakes.
A winner of 10 Breeders’ Cup races, Mott probably is best known as the trainer of two-time Horse of the Year Cigar. Mott, 65, has amassed 4,910 victories and more than $276.6 million in purse earnings since he took out his trainer’s license while he was still in high school. Jeff Lowe wrote an in-depth feature about Mott’s rise from a 14-year-old at the racetrack in South Dakota to Kentucky Derby-winning trainer.
Jockey Flavien Prat picked up the mount on Country House for the Kentucky Derby; the chestnut colt had four different riders in his first six races. Prat, a native of France and the son of a trainer, ran third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby aboard Battle of Midway.
A winner of 672 races through May 7, Prat has amassed 79 graded stakes wins since taking out his jockey’s license in 2009, including Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint on Obviously in 2016 and the 2017 Las Vegas Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile aboard Battle of Midway.
Pedigree: Country House is from the fifth crop of 2010 Preakness Stakes winner Lookin At Lucky, who stands at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. and shuttles to Chile for the southern hemisphere breeding season, where he is a two-time leading sire.
Lookin At Lucky was a terrific racehorse who won nine of 13 starts and only finished out of the top three twice, once when he was bumped hard early and often when running sixth in the Kentucky Derby. A five-time Grade 1 winner Lookin At Lucky was the Eclipse Award winner as champion 2-year-old male in 2009 and champion 3-year-old male in 2010.
Lookin At Lucky has enjoyed a terrific six months as a sire with son Accelerate winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November and subsequently taking home the Eclipse Award as champion older dirt male after winning six of seven starts in 2018.
Lookin At Lucky also is the sire of Grade 1 winner Wow Cat, multiple graded stakes winners Madefromlucky and Money Multiplier, and graded stakes winner Breaking Lucky, a close sibling to Country House. Lookin At Lee ran second in the 2017 Kentucky Derby.
Country House is one of three starters and three stakes winners produced by his dam (mother), Quake Lake, by War Chant. Quake Lake is a half-sister (same dam, different sire) to the aforementioned Breaking Lucky, a Canadian classic winner who ran second in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap in 2016.
Country House is a big, durable 3-year-old with a nice pedigree coming off his best race to date.
The Preakness probably would have been a tall order as his fourth race in eight weeks in a race that has been very kind in recent years to runners with tactical speed.
Country House seems to have an abundance of stamina and thus could be formidable should he recover quickly and return for the Belmont Stakes, but more likely we’ll see him over the summer where he would figure to be a key player in the top races for 3-year-olds.
As for his ceiling, the jury is still out.
Country House certainly will have his skeptics given his most important win came via disqualification, but he looks like the classic late developer who should have plenty of opportunities to prove his Kentucky Derby win was no fluke.