04/03/2013 4:39PM

Jay Hovdey: Hear the Ghost's owners have big dreams for bargain horse

Emily Shields
Hear the Ghost, the winner of the San Felipe Stakes, cost just $40,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale.

Ted Aroney likes to think he’s learned the secret of winning the Kentucky Derby, although it’s not much of a secret. More like fortune-cookie wisdom, so obvious that to deny its truth is nothing more than a waste of time.

Anybody can win.

His first lesson came in 1971, when Canonero II, the colt from Venezuela, came from out of the clouds – and the mutuel field – to win the 97th Kentucky Derby by 3 3/4 lengths despite a nightmarish experience in quarantine and a jockey-trainer combination that needed a guide and translator just to find Louisville, Ky.

“The summer before that, they brought Canonero to Del Mar to run in the Futurity,” Aroney said. “He was for sale, and I made them an offer, $60,000, but they wanted $80,000 and half of any of the Futurity purse he won. Plus, they insisted on using their jockey in the race. We turned them down. That was a deal-breaker because $80,000 was a lot of money in those days.”

Canonero II finished fifth in the Del Mar Futurity, returned to Venezuela, then made history the following year by winning the Derby and the Preakness.

“I would carry around an article about his quarantine ordeal before he won the Derby,” Aroney said. “I mean, if a colt could go through all that and still win the Derby, I figured anybody could win.”

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Aroney’s interest in Thoroughbreds and Southern California real estate eventually put him in the orbit of Sid and Jenny Craig, whose stable was very much dedicated to winning a race like the Kentucky Derby. After Sid Craig died in 2008, Aroney stepped up to manage the racing interests of the Sid and Jenny Craig Trust, and in 2009, he found himself at the Derby with Chocolate Candy, the winner of the El Camino Real Derby for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

“Jerry’s always very careful about barn security, especially when a horse travels like that,” Aroney said. “So, we’re all settled into our barn there at Churchill, and here comes a trailer from New Mexico carrying a horse they put right next to us. The guys with him are partying all night long, beer cans all around. Our guards are saying, ‘Please keep quiet. Our horse is sleeping.’ But the party went on.”

And on and on. The New Mexico horse was Mine That Bird, who won the 2009 Kentucky Derby at 50-1, while Chocolate Candy finished fifth.

“Like I said,” Aroney added, “anybody can win.”

The idea of a colt like Hear the Ghost winning the Kentucky Derby isn’t nearly as outrageous as the sagas of Canonero II and Mine That Bird. Owned by Aroney and Hollendorfer, the son of 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper will try to cement his status as the best in the West on Saturday when he runs in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby against Robert B. Lewis Stakes winner Flashback and Sham Stakes winner Goldencents. Hear the Ghost beat them both in the San Felipe Stakes on March 9 with an admirable stretch punch in what was only his third career start.

Aroney fell for Ghostzapper not too long after he was at Sid Craig’s side when Candy Ride won the 2003 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Had Candy Ride stayed in training in 2004, there could have been a momentous collision of two top older runners in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Lone Star Park, but instead, Craig’s star was retired.

“As good as Candy Ride was, the way Ghostzapper won that Classic, I’m not sure any horse could have beaten him,” Aroney said.

Hear the Ghost already has exceeded any expectations raised by his $40,000 purchase price at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale. Such bargains have become a Hollendorfer trademark, but Aroney warns against the conclusion that Hear the Ghost looked anything like a $40,000 horse.

“Based on his pedigree and his looks, he should have gone for twice that,” Aroney said. “But as I remember, he went very early or very late in a session, and sometimes the prices will be affected by that.”

Good memory. Hear the Ghost, out of the Coronado’s Quest mare Rehear, was the fifth yearling sold at the sixth of 13 sale sessions that September.

He’s got everyone’s attention now, with his San Felipe score preceded by a second in the six-furlong San Pedro Stakes in January and a smart maiden win in December at Betfair Hollywood Park. It has been a while since Aroney and Hollendorfer have teamed to make headlines with a top-class 3-year-old – 24 years, in fact – so it’s okay if they are getting that King Glorious feeling all over again.

King Glorious was unbeaten at 2 in 1988 and ranked second only to champion Easy Goer in year-end polls. He missed the 1989 classics while nursing a sore knee but returned in the summer to win the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, a race that put Hollendorfer’s name on the national map.

“I was told by experienced people who were very professional to enjoy it while I could because chances are, it would never happen again,” Aroney said. “Of course, there’s not too many horses like King Glorious to go around.”

Aroney can blame his lifelong love affair with racing on his father, Anthony Aroney, who was of Greek ancestry but raised in Australia. They were taking father-son trips to Santa Anita from the time young Ted could peek over the paddock railing.

“My father was a rugby player,” said Aroney, who admitted that he was not. “They called him ‘Nuggets’ Aroney. And my uncle once owned a horse who finished seventh in the Melbourne Cup.”

So much for pedigree. The rest has been good fortune and timing. Aroney’s ongoing partnerships with Hollendorfer and other owners have netted some major paydays, topped by Dakota Phone’s victory in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Churchill Downs.

On Saturday, Aroney will find out if Hear the Ghost can take them back to Kentucky, because if anybody can win the Derby, he figures it might as well be him.