02/25/2015 1:25PM

Beyer: History could be Khozan’s toughest rival

Barbara D. Livingston
Though Khozan earned only a 90 Beyer Figure for this allowance victory, he was still impressive with jockey Javier Castellano never asking his mount to extend himself.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Javier Castellano has ridden more than 4,000 winners in his career, and he might reasonably have been blasé when he captured a minor race by a dozen lengths at Gulfstream Park on Sunday. But after the jockey dismounted from the 3-year-old colt Khozan, he declared: “That’s what we live for with the horses!”

Such an effusive statement might perplex people outside the racing community. But jockeys, owners, trainers, breeders, fans, and even cynical journalists know that nothing in the game is more exciting than the emergence of a brilliant young horse – one whose potential seems limitless. The excitement is intensified when such an event occurs with the Kentucky Derby ahead on the racing calendar.

Khozan attracted attention even before he set foot on a racetrack. A stable owned by a member of the Qatar royal family bought him at an auction for $1 million on the strength of his regal pedigree. His dam previously produced Royal Delta, the two-time Breeders’ Cup winner and three-time champion. His sire is Distorted Humor, whose offspring include the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide.

Of course, even well-bred horses flop more often than they excel. But when Khozan made his debut at Gulfstream on Jan. 24 in a tough 14-horse maiden race, he delivered a smashing performance, vying for the lead and drawing off to win by nearly four lengths. His fast time translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 103 – a rating higher than the best performances by the Eclipse Award-winning champion of his generation, American Pharoah. Khozan looked like Kentucky Derby material. He made his second start Sunday in a first-level allowance race and accelerated sharply on the rail to blow past his rivals and win in a runaway. The time wasn’t nearly as impressive as his debut, but Castellano never had to ask his mount for a maximum effort.

A racing career could hardly begin more auspiciously, but both the colt and his trainer, Todd Pletcher, are about to confront a hard reality. “History is against him,” Pletcher acknowledged, “but maybe he can be the one to overcome it.”

Pletcher is referring to more than a century’s worth of evidence that lightly raced late-bloomers like Khozan don’t get draped with roses at Churchill Downs. Because the Derby is uniquely demanding, a 3-year-old needs a solid foundation of experience and fitness in order to win it. Brilliance alone won’t suffice. Pletcher will be reminded hundreds of times this spring that no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. Even though training styles have changed, and contemporary horses are campaigned more sparingly than their forebears, 2-year-old experience still appears essential. The last 10 Derby winners started their careers by early October.

When horses try to cram too much preparation into too little time, the effort takes a toll on them. Pletcher knows this as well as anyone. Two years ago his colt Verrazano made his debut on Jan. 1 and won his first three starts in Florida by a combined total of 27 lengths. But his form was on the downgrade by the time he got to Louisville and he finished 14th in the Derby.

Pletcher said, “Regardless of whether there’s a Kentucky Derby on the horizon, the next logical step for Khozan is to go in a big stakes [in his next start].”

The logical objective would be the Florida Derby on March 28. If Khozan wins that $1 million event, there will be no turning back from Louisville. He will try to capture the Derby in only the fourth start of his career, a feat accomplished only by Regret (1915) and Big Brown (2008.)

It would be prudent to give Khozan time to develop, skip the Derby, and aim for other objectives that could make him the champion 3-year-old by year’s end. Indeed, in the past, some of the country’s leading trainers (such as the masterful Charlie Whittingham) and owners (such as the Phipps family) resisted the allure of the Derby and even seemed to disdain it. But such attitudes have disappeared. As the sport has declined, and historic races such as the Jockey Club Gold Cup have lost the public’s interest, the Triple Crown series has become the focus of every owner and trainer. Nobody with a semi-plausible contender passes up a chance to run in the Kentucky Derby. That’s why the race now draws a maximum field of 20 almost every year.

This year’s Derby is already shaping up to be one deep in talent. Upstart may be the leading contender, even though he didn’t deliver his top performance in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream and he wound up being disqualified. He had a solid campaign as a 2-year-old – his foundation of experience is ideal – and he won the Holy Bull Stakes in January with a Beyer Speed Figure of 106.

The West Coast has an abundance of good Derby prospects. American Pharoah, who won two Grade 1 stakes last fall before being sidelined by an injury, is now training well and ready to return to action. Dortmund, a stablemate of American Pharoah in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn, has won all four of his starts, most recently a dramatic photo-finish victory over Firing Line in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Texas Red made an eye-catching last-to-first rally to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the fall; a foot problem has hampered him this year, but if he recovers he would bring an ideal running style into the Derby.

Even in an ordinary year, a 20-horse Kentucky Derby is difficult to win, and 2015 appears to be better than an ordinary year. If Khozan comes into the Derby with barely three months of racing experience, with only three prior starts, and with only one test in stakes competition, he will find himself at an almost insuperable disadvantage – no matter how talented he may be.


Michael Jacob More than 1 year ago
Lets see how he runs going 2 turns in the Florida Derby.
Walter More than 1 year ago
Khozan is such a nice horse but he doesn't have the necessary time to develop for the Kentucky Derby. He will be a factor for the Belmont and the races later in the summer. It's all about Dortmund in the KD
Mark Oleary More than 1 year ago
Somehow I didn't notice this precocious colt is a half brother to the great Royal Delta. This bodes very well for the mile and a quarter of the Derby , which other than actual sesoning is always the major hurdle of an aspirant for the greatest 2 minutes in sports.Good Luck to him and his trainer, Todd Pletcher, who always gets pilloried around Derby time.
Mark Oleary More than 1 year ago
i love this horse!
John Burton More than 1 year ago
"You never know. No, you never know."
gallopingtom More than 1 year ago
He'll get jammed in the KD gate with 4 other no shot in hell Pletcher trainees! This horse has no clue about traffic. This is the same trainer who put blinkers on Palace Malice and was convinced Quality Road could get 1 1/4 miles. Too much to overcome. He'll get in if he runs in the Florida Derby.
russell More than 1 year ago
I do agree with Palice Malice comment. Very talented horse sent as a rabbit in Derby. Quality Rd very nice who was a better older horse.But the loot is always made in these bad 3yold preps especially FG, and Oaklawn. Always bet against Todd in these top races.
Capo Capo More than 1 year ago
Quality Road could get 10 furlongs. He lost by a length in the Jockey Club Gold Cup to Summer Bird(who was no slouch) and fought right through the wire.
russell More than 1 year ago
Ray I saw Jerry Bailey stiff more horses than any jock in history. We actually had a name for it- "the chicken wing" He would shake the reins like he was trying and wave his arms like a chicken. The chicken wing
Dick Brasher More than 1 year ago
You are 100% right Russell...I have a horse,and the jock pulled him off the easy lead the horse had made when he ran at Del Mar,and he ended up 8th,and when the jock got off,he told the trainer"Next time man"Guess what?He romped at 11-1 in his next start at Los Al for 20k,wire to wire.The winner at Del Mar that day paid 15-1 or so,and was right behind us when our jockey started fighting to pull him back,and that horse ended up in front.
Joe Rockhold More than 1 year ago
Lol - I remember him doing that when riding horses I bet on over the years. It would infuriate me. Was he trying to show the stewards that he was make some lame attempt to shake the horse up? It was insulting. I've seen Desormeaux do the same thing on occasion.
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
"...When horses try to cram too much preparation into too little time, the effort takes a toll on them. .." Why not skip all the hysteria and aim for brilliance later in the year? Patience is a virtue.
russell More than 1 year ago
Ray you are right its always about the horses. But few can go the distance which makes it a great betting race. Ray Pletcher is almost a toss. And Godolphin never won a Derby. Both spent hundreds of millions.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
I have seen all the conventunal wisdom disproved..you could not win from the one draw then Ferdinand did.you could not win from the 20 hole then Big Brown did.. No one had ever won from the 19 draw then I'll have another did..Fusaichi Pegasus proved a lightly raced horse could win...Winning Colours proved a good filly could beat the boys. Funny cide proved geldings and New York breds could win the derby..Super Saver proved Pletcher could train a derby winner...So it's not out of the question for this horse to win despite his limited resume.he certainly has the pedigree and talent but he still has to win a graded stakes race first and get the points .so it's too early to anoint him a derby prospect let alone winner. as for any comparison to Verrazano they are totally diferent animals one was bred to be a turf miler and turned out to be a very good miler on dirt as well. But he was never going to win in top competition at a mile and a quarter on dirt.khozan has the pedigree to be much more effective at classic distances.time will tell how good he really is.
Joe Rockhold More than 1 year ago
Excellent post Ray!
russell More than 1 year ago
Ray this horse aint winning the Derby. I'm usually on your side but I don't see this horse at all.