Jerry Crawford, president of Donegal Racing, is featured this week. He established Donegal in 2008 with an eye toward identifying young prospects that offered the potential to reach the Derby and other classic races.
Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by Resorts World Casino winner Mo Donegal, trained by Todd Pletcher, is on course to provide Donegal with its fourth Derby starter. He follows in the hoofprints of Paddy O’Prado (third, 2010), Dullahan (third, 2012) and Keen Ice (seventh, 2015). Keen Ice, of course, will be forever remembered for shocking Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes.
Crawford purchased Mo Donegal for $250,000 at Keeneland’s September Yearling Sale. The son of Uncle Mo is also a winner of the Remsen Stakes. He ranks fourth on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 112 qualifying points.
Crawford participated in a question-and-answer session conducted on behalf of America’s Best Racing:
PEDULLA: Why did you establish Donegal Racing?
CRAWFORD: Well, my son, Conor, and I were trying to figure out why we were always losing our wagers at the Kentucky Derby. In that era, longshots were routinely winning the Kentucky Derby. We were trying to figure out why from a betting standpoint. We started playing around with algorithms. We found we couldn’t use the algorithm to pick the horse that would win. We could use the algorithm to eliminate horses. In a 20-horse field, if you’re down to 1 out of 5 instead of 1 out of 20, your chances go up significantly. We were enjoying some success and so, in 2008, I said to Linda, my wife, I’m going to go to the Keeneland September [yearling] sale and buy a horse that fits our formula. Everybody remembers what happened to the economy in 2008. I had set a limit for the horse I wanted to buy that fit our formula of $300,000. All of a sudden, the market fell out of that sale and I was able to buy eight horses for $410,000. Fortunately, a number of my friends had been saying for a while, ‘Why don’t you buy a horse and we’ll all go in on it?’ I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope they’re serious.’ That turned out to be Derby Dreams 1, which means to us the first year’s partnership.
PEDULLA: What is your operating philosophy?
CRAWFORD: In Donegal, everybody owns a percentage of every horse. You don’t buy just one or two or three and hit on the wrong ones. You own a percentage of every horse. That way, we have a lot more winners among our partners.
PEDULLA: How many horses are currently under the Donegal banner?
CRAWFORD: I’m going to say about 15. We have eight 2-year-olds that are in training as we speak that we are very excited about.
PEDULLA: Do you view Keen Ice’s upset of American Pharoah in the Travers as your sweetest victory?
CRAWFORD: That’s an interesting question. It was certainly the most dramatic, right? When people ask me ‘What is your favorite race of all time?’ I say it’s the [Dixiana Breeders’] Futurity and the [Toyota] Blue Grass [Stakes] at Keeneland for Dullahan. When you have a horse in the Derby for the first time, everybody says, ‘You are so lucky.’ We work awfully hard at what we do. We don’t exactly think of it as luck. When Dullahan won those two races and made it to the Derby, I thought we would hear a little less about how lucky we were. And, of course, now it’s happened twice more.
PEDULLA: What drew you to Mo Donegal?
CRAWFORD: I loved this horse at the sale. I was just afraid I wouldn’t be able to afford him. Two hundred and fifty thousand is about the most we would pay for a horse unless it was something extraordinary. I loved this horse’s geometry, the way he was put together. He was not a finished horse. He was rough off the farm, and I like looking for horses like that. You often get them at a more reasonable price. He just looked like the kind who could gather himself early and then come running with some significant power. He had a magnificent hip. He just needed a shoulder to catch up with it. We have to buy based on what a horse could become, not on what a horse looks like at the yearling sale. Some of those horses at the sale looked ready to go into the Derby starting gate. Those tend to be not the right choices, based on my experience.
PEDULLA: When did you start to view him as a Derby prospect?
CRAWFORD: Really in his first maiden race. It was a sprint. We knew he was not a sprinter. But we saw him come running into the stretch and finish very, very strongly. We just thought ‘Going two turns, he’s going to be awfully tough to deal with.’
PEDULLA: What have you learned from your Derby starts?
CRAWFORD: Trip, trip, trip. Both Paddy O’Prado and Dullahan could have won the Derby easily with a cleaner trip.
PEDULLA: Can Mo Donegal get the mile and a quarter in the Derby?
CRAWFORD: If you look at the closing fractions the contenders have run, I don’t think anybody has run as fast as we have. Closing fractions are a pretty good indicator of how horses are going to do in the Derby. I think it’s fair to say that people have seen that Mo Donegal is likely to be able to get this distance. If he can get the distance and if he’s the fastest at the end and if he gets a good trip – I know that’s three ifs, which is a lot. But if those three things happen, I think he can be right there.
PEDULLA: Was Mo Donegal’s third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes disappointing?
CRAWFORD: Yes, but not surprising. The short stretch [at Gulfstream Park], the short distance of the race (1 1/16 miles), the nature of the surface, I did not expect we would win that day. But I thought we needed to get started back to the races. I can’t say it was disappointing when it happened the way I thought it would.
PEDULLA: When you had to scratch from the Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth Stakes due to a fever, was that a setback or a blessing in disguise?
CRAWFORD: Blessing in disguise. I think it puts Mo Donegal in a position to move forward again in the Derby. One of these top five or six horses in the Derby is going to move forward, maybe more than one. They are going to be your contenders.
PEDULLA: How significant was Mo Donegal’s Wood Memorial victory at Aqueduct?
CRAWFORD: I sat there all day Friday and all day Saturday and not one horse closed against the bias until Mo Donegal, who had been 12 lengths back. He was able to close on a surface when no one else did and get there in time. I think that performance is much more impressive than meets the eye.
PEDULLA: What can you say about the training job Todd Pletcher has done with this horse?
CRAWFORD: We use Todd and Brad Cox and they’re both just terrific. Todd is crazy smart. He’s brilliantly organized. He has a sense for how a horse is doing and when they’re ready to go. Mo Donegal would not be Mo Donegal without the job Todd has done.
PEDULLA: You sound very optimistic. Is your gut telling you that this can be the horse?
CRAWFORD: Tell me the trip we will get and I will tell you what I think will happen. It’s just really very simple for us because we know we are not going to be in the front half of the pack, barring something totally unanticipated. If we can find a seam, I wouldn’t trade places with anybody.
PEDULLA: What would it mean to win the Derby?
CRAWFORD: We call our partnerships Derby Dreams. I would be so excited for my partners. When you are allowed to do what my partners allow me to do, you want this for them. Do I want to win the Derby? Of course, I do. But I’m way more focused on giving my partners something they could remember forever.