02/27/2010 12:00AM

Out of 15 horses, two Derby prospects

Email
Benoit & Associates
Mike Machowsky, here with jockey Paul Atkinson and his Derby contender Caracortado, also trains Nextdoorneighbor. Both are homebreds.

There are owners who go out and spend millions of dollars looking for a Kentucky Derby horse, and trainers who stockpile prospects in the hope that one of them gets there. Mike Machowsky does not have that luxury. He trains 15 horses. Not 15 3-year-olds. Fifteen horses. Yet of those 15, two - Caracortado and Nextdoorneighbor, both homebreds - have emerged as legitimate Derby contenders, and are taking the Santa Anita-based Machowsky, 44, on the ride of his life.

Caracortado has been the biggest surprise. He is a California-bred gelding by a $1,500 sire, Cat Dreams. Yet after beginning his career by winning a four-furlong maiden-claiming race at Fairplex, out of which anyone could have grabbed him for $40,000, he has continued to ascend the class ladder, and has continued to win, running his record to 5 for 5 following a victory earlier this month in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

Nextdoorneighbor, a colt by Lido Palace, has taken longer to come around, but is catching up in a hurry. After losing his first two starts, both sprints, he romped by four lengths beating maidens five weeks ago in his first start around two turns. He is scheduled to make his stakes debut on Saturday in the Grade 3, $150,000 Sham Stakes going 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita.

"It's been very exciting," Machowsky said this week. "I can't wait to get up in the morning and read all the stories, not just on my horses, but on all the horses. But I'm trying not to let the pressure get to me."

Machowsky has never had a Kentucky Derby runner. He has attended the race only once, in 2006, as a guest of friends. But he has made all the right moves so far with these two horses. Machowsky has shown loyalty to jockey Paul Atkinson, who gets precious few chances, particularly in stakes, but has ridden Caracortado flawlessly in all five of his races. Neither Machowsky nor Don Blahut, the octogenarian who co-owns Caracortado with Machowsky, has any interest in replacing Atkinson with a better-known rider.

:: DERBY WATCH: (PDF)

:: VIDEO:

:: ILLMAN'S REPORT CARD:

"It just goes to show that you've got to have the stock, whether you're a jockey, a trainer, or an owner," Machowsky said. "A good horse will run for anybody."

That loyalty has not cut both ways, though. Jockey Rafael Bejarano rode Nextdoorneighbor in his first three starts, but opted to ride Setsuko in the Sham.

Machowsky shrugged it off, got Mike Smith for Nextdoorneighbor, and moved on. It was hard for him to get mad, especially since Setsuko is trained by Machowsky's mentor, Richard Mandella, for whom Machowsky worked from 1985-90 before going out on his own.

"We never had a Derby horse," Machowsky said. "We had horses like Phone Trick, but never a Derby horse. This is a different type of feeling."

One of Machowsky's first clients was Blahut, a now-retired businessman who lives in the Santa Clarita Valley northwest of Los Angeles.

"Don is awesome. He's one of those guys who's never wavered, whether he's had good luck or bad luck," Machowsky said. "He's an even-keeled kind of a guy. Great to train for. A lot of guys in that position might be saying, 'Let's get a name jock,' but that's never come up."

There's a good reason Blahut leaves well enough alone. For a guy who owns a handful of horses, he has had great success. He was in the partnership that owned Machowsky's best horse ever, Southern Image, who won the 2004 Santa Anita Handicap and Pimlico Special, and he also owns Kelly Leak, who won last year's Sunland Derby, beating subsequent Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. Kelly Leak is nearing a return after a lengthy vacation.

"I originally had a real, real good older trainer, Leonard Dorfman, but as I got more into the sport, I wanted someone younger who would fly here and fly there. And that's what happened last year with Kelly Leak," Blahut said from his home. "Mike is free and easy to do things like that. He's picked me out some of the best horses anyone could ever expect to own. It's been a great relationship. He's done a superb job for me.

"Most people are in this all their life and never have a good horse. I've had two, bordering on three, and it's all because of Mike."

Nextdoorneighbor was bred and is owned by retired Mattel chief executive John Amerman and his wife, Jerry. He is the first foal out of the stakes-winning mare Fencelineneighbor, whom Machowsky trained. That's one reason why the Amermans and their racing manager, Bob Feld, thought it prudent to give Machowsky her offspring.

"He acts like a real nice horse," Machowsky said. "I thought he would be a top horse a few months back. He always trained like a really nice horse."

In fact, the first time Machowsky thought Caracortado might develop into something special was when he worked him in company with Nextdoorneighbor.

"It was after Caracortado had broken his maiden," Machowsky said. "I thought he'd be a nice, useful little horse, but one morning I worked him six furlongs with Nextdoorneighbor, who I thought highly of, and he kept right up with him. I thought, 'This is a pretty nice horse.'

"The first time I ran him it was going a half-mile. I didn't know what kind of horse he'd be, but I didn't think he'd be 5 for 5 and a Grade 2 winner."

In other Derby developments:

Trainer John Sadler decided not to nominate Sidney's Candy, the winner of the San Vicente Stakes, to next weekend's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

"Coming back in three weeks is not what I wanted to do," Sadler said Wednesday.

Sadler trains both Dave in Dixie and Sidney's Candy, and though both could run in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 13 - where Caracortado is scheduled to run next - Sadler said he would wait until both work this weekend before finalizing anything. Also on March 13 are the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and the Tampa Bay Derby.

WHO'S HOT

Todd Pletcher. He now has five of the top 20 runners on Derby Watch. Eskendereya, the Fountain of Youth winner, is the strong 9-2 second choice on the Kentucky Derby future line of Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, after being 15-1 a week ago. Rule and Super Saver, both trained by Pletcher, are the co-third choices at 12-1. Discreetly Mine, trainer by Pletcher, and Tempted to Tapit - both listed as "on the bubble" last week - moved into the top 20 by finishing one-two, respectively, in the Risen Star. Discreetly Mine is 20-1, with Tempted to Tapit at 30-1. Also new to the list this week is D' Funnybone, who won the Hutcheson Stakes and is 25-1 on Watchmaker's line.

WHO'S NOT

Three horses were dropped from the list to make room for newcomers. Dryfly was injured in the Southwest Stakes, Ron the Greek disappointed in the Risen Star, and A Little Warm, though second in the Hutcheson, was adjudged to be inferior to the three newcomers and had to be removed. Buddy's Saint, the 6-1 second choice on Watchmaker's line last week, was bumped up to 20-1 after beating one horse in the Fountain of Youth. Jackson Bend, second in the Fountain of Youth, saw his price double from 15-1 to 30-1.

ON THE BUBBLE

Nextdoorneighbor, Setsuko, and The Program are all scheduled to run in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday, and a strong performance could vault one into the top 20. Connemara just missed the cut this week, as did Odysseus, a runaway winner of a Tampa Bay allowance race.