02/25/2015 12:25PM

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.