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Archipenko grows into a global talent
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - The people connected to the horse are scattered across the globe: A bloodstock man in Ireland, stud-farm owners in South Africa, and a sheikh from Dubai. Bred in the U.S., Archipenko was briefly a 2007 English Derby hopeful for the mighty Coolmore operation and trainer Aidan O'Brien. But his form deteriorated badly last year at 3, the colt was sold privately, and over the winter in Dubai, he blossomed into a completely different racehorse.
He is a horse with many faces, which is fitting, since the 4-year-old colt Archipenko is named for the Russian Cubist artist Alexander Archipenko. But the craftsman behind this animal would appear to be trainer Mike de Kock, whose name keeps popping up in association with big-time international racehorses.
The trainer of 2003 Dubai Duty Free winner Ipi Tombe and 1998 South African Horse of the Year Horse Chestnut, de Kock just missed winning the Beverly D. last year with Irridescence. His latest project, Archipenko has been at Arlington Park since Friday, when he flew here from England, and on Tuesday morning he had a seven-furlong turf work for a try Saturday in the Arlington Million. There's a good chance he'll win it, too.
World traveling - Archipenko has done that. He went from Dubai to Hong Kong and won the prestigious Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup in April by almost two lengths.
Meeting top-class horses - check that off, too. On Dubai World Cup night, Archipenko finished a close and rather unlucky third in the 16-horse Dubai Duty Free, which will stand as one of the deepest turf races run anywhere in 2008.
Archipenko is proven at the Million's 1 1/4 miles, and has been pointed to this race for months by de Kock, who prepped him with a win in the Group 2 Summer Mile Stakes on July 12 at Ascot.
How good is Archipenko right now? That last race was too short for him, and he had the Million as his larger goal, but Archipenko won by three-quarters of a length, anyway. The horse behind him, Barshiba, was a 50-1 shot of no great consequence, but Ramonti finished fifth, and at the end of last year he was among the best eight- to 10-furlong grass horses anywhere.
The big question, though, is how Archipenko got from point A to point B. A Coolmore breeding entity, Eagle Holdings, bred Archipenko, a blue-blooded son of the great sire Kingmambo and the mare Bound, kin to Nureyev and other renowned grass horses. Archipenko was entered in and withdrawn from a yearling sale in 2005, made the races fairly early in his 2-year-old season, and scored an open-lengths maiden win in October 2006 in Ireland. When he won the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial in his first start at 3, Archipenko became a prospect for the English Derby - he and six other horses from the O'Brien yard. But that did not work out at all. There were 17 horses in the English Derby, and Archipenko brought up the rear, straggling home about 10 seconds after the winner. His connections kept the faith, running Archipenko in three more Group 1 races through the summer, but Archipenko was thumped in all of them.
It was an Irish bloodstock agent and farm owner, Hugo Merry, who first alerted de Kock and some of his clients last fall that Archipenko might be available for private purchase. De Kock described the matter diplomatically on his stable's website:
"Archipenko was acquired from Coolmore Stud in Ireland, who have dozens of top horses and can't hold on to everything every year. They are regular sellers in the market and we are privileged to have been invited to buy from them over the last few years."
De Kock, a legendary horseman in his native South Africa, said at the time of the purchase that it was hoped that if nothing else, Archipenko could stand at the Ascot Stud of Rose and Ashley Parker in South Africa, where his Group 2 win and powerful pedigree would prove attractive.
"I first saw him in December, when I went to Dubai," de Kock said, reached Monday evening in England. "To be honest, I wasn't that impressed. But we started putting him to work, and it was like watching a duck turn into a swan."
Several things helped Archipenko turn a corner. First, de Kock believes the simple fact of maturation played a large role in his turnaround. Then, two equipment changes. While Archipenko had started training like a good thing, his Dubai debut produced a 10th-place finish in a 6 1/2-furlong Nad Al Sheba turf handicap under jockey Johnny Murtagh.
"He'd been showing us something in the morning, but [in the race] he was all over the track, trying to get out of it," de Kock said. "Johnny Murtagh got off and immediately said to put blinkers on him right away. He's been straight and true ever since."
De Kock also began using a tongue tie on Archipenko, and he may have tweaked who knows how many other little things. Barry Irwin of Team Valor Stable is back together now with de Kock after the two split last fall. De Kock had Irridescence for Team Valor, as well as Ipi Tombe, and Irwin is quick to heap praise on de Kock's skill.
"Mike is a very smart guy, and his natural instincts with horses are what set him apart," Irwin said in an e-mail message. "Whenever he shows up to where his horses are trained, the horses immediately improve, or run up to form. He sees things that others miss. He's truly brilliant."
Irwin, who has strong ties to South African racing, said de Kock is "like a god" in his native land. But what has made de Kock unique has been his willingness to branch out and fully inhabit what has become a vibrant international racing scene. De Kock was the leading trainer in the Dubai Winter Carnival this year, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al-Maktoum, part of Dubai's ruling family and an Archipenko co-owner, has become an important patron. From Dubai, de Kock can reach major international races in East Asia, and this summer, he has 20 horses stabled in England, his biggest presence ever in European racing. Archipenko, in fact, gave de Kock his first English win.
In cultivating a stable flung all over the world, de Kock surely has figured out what kind of horse can trot the globe, and Archipenko, apparently, is just such a one.
"Now, when he gets on the plane, he thinks he's going on holiday," de Kock said. "From the day he walked in there in Hong Kong, he just thrived, and it's been the same with Chicago."
That other trip, off to a mostly anonymous stud career in South Africa, has been postponed indefinitely. Archipenko is far too busy rapidly evolving into one of the best grass horses in the world.