09/25/2012 3:27PM

Remington Park: Diamond Joe, the pride of Nebraska, faces tough test in Oklahoma Derby

Dustin Orona Photography
Diamond Joe will be looking for his 10th straight victory in the Oklahoma Derby.

Nebraska has a long history in racing, but it has been on a downhill slide since the state’s flagship track, Ak-Sar-Ben, closed in 1995. It has been close to two decades since Nebraska last produced a horse capable of making a splash outside its borders. But that could change Sunday, when Diamond Joe seeks his 10th consecutive win in the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park.

The task will be a tall one. Grade  1 winner Willy Beamin is in from New York for the Oklahoma Derby, while Called to Serve, a close third in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby, touched down from Southern California on Tuesday morning. But the time is ripe for Diamond Joe, the winningest horse this year in North America, to be tested after a Nebraska season in which he won seven stakes by a combined margin of 50 lengths.

“This has just been a great ride, every race,” said Joe Miller, who co-bred and co-owns Diamond Joe. “It seems like anything that even got close to him, he could see them coming and just had another gear. I don’t know what to expect Sunday. We just try to take them one at a time and hope for the best. We don’t know how good he is.”

Trainer Chuck Turco began pointing Diamond Joe to the 1 1/8-mile Oklahoma Derby in August. Diamond Joe vanned into Oklahoma City on Sept. 11, and three days later won a one-mile no-conditions allowance at Remington. It was the Nebraska-bred’s first start outside of his home state and first over a one-mile oval after racing exclusively on five-furlong tracks. Diamond Joe stalked the pace and went on to win by three-quarters of a length, covering the distance in 1:38.20 and earning a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of 78.

Turco said he was pleased to get in a local prep for the Oklahoma Derby, a race in which Diamond Joe also is expected to meet Prospective and Politicallycorrect, the one-two finishers in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby; and Daddy Nose Best, winner of the Grade 3 Sunland Park Derby.

“I think he’s capable,” Turco said of Diamond Joe. “If it’s not his day, and he can’t do it, then so be it. We won’t put him in against those kind again. And we won’t be disappointed. Few horses win that many races in a row. It’s incredible what he’s done. Even winning the race the other night, he’s not supposed to have all those variables against him and win.”

Turco said Diamond Joe showed “courage” in his Remington debut. He said it was the first time the horse had been over a muddy track and that he also had to adjust to a significant ship for the first time in addition to a night racing environment that included a five-story-tall video board that lights up the infield.

“We don’t have that jumbotron in Columbus,” Turco quipped.

Diamond Joe was ridden by Cliff Berry after Jake Olesiak handled the horse in his 12 previous starts. Berry, the all-time winningest rider at Remington, has the mount for the Oklahoma Derby, a race he won in 2003 with Comic Truth and 2006 with Mr. Pursuit.

Diamond Joe is a son of Dazzling Falls, who is considered the last big horse to come out of Nebraska. Dazzling Falls won his debut at Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha in 1994 and went on to win the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, $300,000 Remington Park Derby, and $200,000 Alabama Derby in 1995, under the tutelage of Turco, a 51-year-old native of Omaha. Dazzling Falls remains the all-time richest Nebraska-bred with earnings of $904,622.

Diamond Joe’s dam, Diamond Road, was a 12-time winner and the only broodmare Miller has ever had. Diamond Joe was raised at the home of his sire, Roger’s Ranch in Mead, Neb. Miller said he purchased Diamond Road privately at Ak-Sar-Ben.

“I bought her as a 2-year-old going way back,” he said. “She could run. She was mostly speed and of course, in Nebraska, you’ve got a lot of bullring tracks, so the speed is good. She ran out more than $100,000 for me, and she was such a nice mare I decided to keep her and breed her.”

Diamond Road was euthanized this summer at age 20 because of a chronic illness. She produced six winners, among them James the Greater, who won the Prairie Meadows Derby in 2007. But Diamond Joe would go on to trump all of his siblings. He won his maiden in the Columbus Futurity by 12 lengths last September, then after a runner-up finish in a Fonner Park allowance race in his seasonal debut March 10, he began his win streak in another Fonner allowance March 24. In all, he has won 10 of 15 starts and $126,000.

Along the way, Diamond Joe has won over lots of racing fans in Nebraska, some of whom will be traveling in for the Oklahoma Derby, Turco said. Diamond Joe takes the Nebraska crowd back to a time when their tracks were a stomping ground for Van Bergs and Von Hemels; when horses like Dazzling Falls and Who Doctor Who were among the best in the Midwest.

But since the closing of Ak-Sar-Ben and with the subsequent growth of gaming in surrounding states, Nebraska’s handle has slid, purses have dropped, and racing opportunities have shrunk. The 2010 crop of registered Nebraska-bred Thoroughbreds numbered only 70.

“I think Diamond Joe brings a great deal of awareness to Nebraska racing,” said Miller, a 65-year-old insurance executive from Lincoln who races Diamond Joe with Joe Koziol. “We are having a tough time in Nebraska. But look what can happen. It’s kind of a glimmer of hope for everybody that he’s doing well.”