02/23/2017 2:40PM

Howard's Derby temperature holds steady at 98.6


Leave it to Neil Howard to do something wacky to mark his 68th birthday on Thursday.

“I’ll be laying low,” Howard said, “doing the usual stuff – pulling manes, cleaning sheets. Anyway, it’s always good to wait until Monday morning to celebrate or not.”

And what a celebration it could be if Howard’s pair of Guest Suite and Eagle come through on Saturday in New Orleans, where the Risen Star for ambitious 3-year-olds tops a stakes-laden program at Fair Grounds.

Howard, though, is always ready for the “or not” in the equation, which means he is taking a wait-and-see attitude regarding the Kentucky Derby prospects of Lecomte Stakes winner Guest Suite beyond the Risen Star, and he knows that Eagle, for all his class, enters the Grade 3 Mineshaft Handicap off more than seven months on the shelf.

Eagle came within a head of winning the Mineshaft last year, then parlayed that form into a victory in the Grade 3 Ben Ali and a near miss in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster. Eagle’s so-so fourth in the Suburban last July told Howard that, after 12 races in 10 months, the son of Candy Ride needed a break.

Still, it is only fitting that Howard should win a Mineshaft sooner or later. After all, he trained the son of A.P. Indy to the heights of 2003 Horse of the Year, beginning with Fair Grounds wins in the Diplomat Way and New Orleans Handicap. He also finished second that winter in the Whirlaway Handicap, which was later renamed the Mineshaft. Go figure.

As for the Risen Star, Howard has gotten this far several times before with 3-year-olds of promise before succumbing to a serious bout of common sense. Translation: For all the nice young colts he has trained in a career going back to 1979, Howard has started exactly two horses in the Kentucky Derby. One of them was Summer Squall, who ran second in the 1990 Derby, then won the Preakness.

“And I’m still looking for the next one like him,” Howard said, “but they’re hard to come by.”

Guest Suite is from the third crop of Quality Road and out of a mare by Ghostzapper. This is to be expected since Howard trains for breeders who supply him with pedigrees to die for, in this case his longtime patron William Farish and partner Lora Jean Kilroy.

“He’s very straightforward,” Howard said of Guest Suite. “Physically, he’s a very lovely horse. Everything blends in on him. Nice-sized and very athletic, with a lot of substance to him. I’ve had a few Quality Roads, and if you’ve got one in the barn, you can be in a pretty good comfort zone.”

Quality Road and Ghostzapper were two of the fastest Thoroughbreds of the modern era, but the pedigree page gets you only so far. Guest Suite has yet to blow the doors off the clock, which is more typical of the Howard approach than the ability the colt ultimately may display. So far, the record shows three wins from five starts dating to last August and a third-place finish to current Derby heartthrob McCraken in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs.

“Very few Derby winners go into the race undefeated,” Howard noted. “We all assess these races at this time of year in a different way. You may run a second or third and run a really good race. By the same token, you might win a race, but not the right way.

“So, it’s nice to have the opportunity to see how far you can get,” Howard added. “But at the same time, you have to be careful not to go down a road you shouldn’t go down.”

Such sentiments, of course, are blasphemous in today’s Derby-crazed culture. Once a young runner is set on a course toward the first Saturday in May, nothing short of injury or serious illness is allowed to get in the way, as if being 20th best among the 3-year-olds left standing is a noteworthy accomplishment.

It’s not, and Howard knows it, even though his collection of old-line Jockey Club patrons would like nothing more than to pose alongside their trainer on the Derby winner’s stand. Howard’s education in the game began with Joe Cotter in New York and continued at the side of Joe Cantey, the trainer of Temperence Hill and Cox’s Ridge. He spent enough time working for Woody Stephens to know that you never went to the Derby without a loaded gun, then did his post-graduate work as an assistant to MacKenzie Miller, who won his first and only Derby at the age of 71.

Six years ago, when Howard had Lecomte winner Wilkinson and two other capable young colts in his well-stocked barn, he was awash with Kentucky Derby coverage. None of them made the race.

“It seems anymore that a horse breaks its maiden, wins a non-winners or one of these early preps, and all the talk begins,” Howard said at the time. “There’s just too much that can happen to think that way.

“That’s part of the mystique of winning the Derby, and I guess that mystique is what’s so great about it,” Howard added. “But you only really know for sure you’ve made it there somewhere around 6 o’clock on Derby Day, and your horse is standing in the gate.”