08/09/2017 9:06AM

Up-and-down career of Divisidero would hit peak with Arlington Million win

Debra A. Roma
Divisidero wins the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill Downs for a second consecutive year.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. – The struggle is real. Every time Divisidero nears the mountaintop, the boulder comes rolling back down, not unlike what happens to Sisyphus in Greek mythology.

“Oh, I know,” said Buff Bradley, who trains Divisidero for the Gunpowder Farms of Tom Keithley. “He’ll win a big race, and I’ll be thinking, ‘Man, he might be the best turf horse in the country.’ And then next out he just can’t quite push the ball over the top of the hill, and we’re back down where we started.”

Divisidero will be attempting to scale the summit of American turf racing once again Saturday at Arlington Park when he faces 12 other older horses in a terrific 35th running of the Grade 1 Arlington Million. In each of his three seasons of racing, Divisidero, now 5, has peaked in the spring, only to incur humbling defeats to send him tumbling down the divisional pecking order.

Divisidero, by the noted grass sire Kitten’s Joy, began his career in auspicious fashion on the Gulfstream Park turf on Feb. 7, 2015. Bradley tends to go slowly with his young horses – he is just 15 for his last 481 (3 percent) with first-time starters – but Divisidero unleashed an extraordinary late kick in winning his debut at 25-1.

It was no fluke. Just two starts later, Divisidero won the Grade 2 American Turf at Bradley’s home track, Churchill Downs, on the same day American Pharoah began his Triple Crown sweep in the Kentucky Derby. He then shipped to Belmont Park to win the Pennine Ridge, a key prep for the Grade 1 Belmont Derby. Alas, he finished seventh as the 5-2 second choice upon returning to New York for that pivotal race in the 3-year-old turf division.

Given time to fully mature and get over some minor leg issues, Divisidero did not race again until the following winter at Gulfstream. Once again, he made his presence known among his contemporaries by winning the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on the 2016 Kentucky Derby undercard. But then he finished fifth in the Grade 1 Manhattan on the Belmont Stakes undercard behind eventual Eclipse Award champion Flintshire, and shortly thereafter, with Divisidero diagnosed with minor bone bruising, Bradley and Keithley once again agreed to call it a year.

“We actually were hoping to get to run in the Million last year,” said Bradley.

So far in 2017, the pattern is repeating itself – only this time, Bradley is confident there’s a different ending to the script. After three losses to start the year, Divisidero won the Turf Classic again, giving him a remarkable 3-for-3 record in Derby Day stakes. Divisidero then finished sixth behind 27-1 shot Ascend in the June 10 Manhattan at Belmont.

Now comes the Million, for which Divisidero was scheduled to arrive here Friday from Churchill. Julien Leparoux will be in from Saratoga for the mount on Divisidero, who will be one of the favorites in the Million.

“I’ve been saying for months that since we got back from Florida, he’s really been a different horse,” said Bradley, who has trained the millionaires Brass Hat and Groupie Doll in a career of nearly 25 years. “He’s just feeling so good, always bucking and playing when he’s coming off the track. He’s really feeling so good, really happy. You always like to see that kind of positive energy in a horse – especially a top horse like him.”

For Keithley, who netted a fortune in 2008 when he sold a financial-services company he co-owned to eBay, the odds were stacked against him acquiring a horse as good as Divisidero as soon as he did. Purchased for $250,000 at the 2013 Keeneland September yearling sale, Divisidero has earned $1,077,950 from 14 career starts.

“He was in the second group of horses I ever bought,” said Keithley, 56. “It’s taken us some time to realize how exceptional this horse is. He’s been a real treat. As Buff has said from the beginning, ‘What he does, he just does it.’ The good ones are like that. It’s the essence of racing to have a horse like him. We’ve been blessed.”

Keithley long had been a casual fan of East Coast racing, primarily the Maryland circuit, but only dove in as an owner after cashing in his primary business.

“I decided I wanted to do something fun,” he said, adding with a laugh: “I don’t know why I picked racing. It’s one of the hardest and most frustrating businesses you could pick.”

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Initially, Keithley enlisted the help of Josh Stevens in setting up Gunpowder, which is named for a river in Harford County, Md., where Keithley grew up. The burgeoning stable now averages 20-25 starts per month and also employs Reade Baker and Kelly Rubley as trainers. Stevens, who picked out Divisidero – named for a loop trail near Taos, N.M., where Keithley has occasionally vacationed – opened his own bloodstock business in January but remains as a consultant to Gunpowder.

“Josh has been invaluable,” said Keithley.

Keithley is planning to be here Saturday from his southeastern Pennsylvania home with his wife, Ericka, and two young children, Lucas and Zoey. Both he and Bradley are hoping the large field for the 1 1/4-mile Million means a rapid early pace will unfold.

Divisidero “has an extremely pace-dependent running style,” said Keithley. “The faster the pace, the more effective his kick.”

In a division lacking a standout, perhaps a Million victory would catapult Divisidero to the No. 1 spot among American turf horses, if only for the moment. Many important races remain, including the Breeders’ Cup in early November.

“If it sets up for him in the Million, I think he’ll be very solid,” said Bradley. “With that, maybe we’ll finally make it to the top.”