12/04/2009 12:00AM

The Usual Q.T. reignites his owner's passion


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For the second time this decade, Don Van owns the horse of a lifetime.

In 2003, he and a few partners claimed Moscow Burning for $25,000 at Bay Meadows. Over the next three years, she earned more than $1 million and was named the California-bred Horse of the Year for 2004.

Van and a different set of partners are trying to top that these days with The Usual Q.T. Back in the summer, The Usual Q.T. was still a maiden after five races. Last Sunday, The Usual Q.T. won his fifth consecutive race in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, his third consecutive stakes win.

"Talk about the little guy getting lucky," said Van, 69.

Van's family bred The Usual Q.T., a gelding by Unusual Heat out of Lunge, by Western Fame, after claiming Lunge for $20,000 with partners Michael Nentwig and George Saadeh at Hollywood Park in 2004.

After Moscow Burning was retired, Van admits that his interest in racing waned. After all, what's so interesting about an everyday claiming race after a horse such as Moscow Burning goes from a claimer to the winner of the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay Handicap at Belmont Park in 2004.

"I got Moscow with a $25,000 claim," he said. "I never tried to have a good horse. I didn't want to go to the Derby and all that. Frankly, Moscow was so exciting. Racing wasn't that much fun."

The Usual Q.T. has changed that, but he was a source of frustration at the start of his career for the partners, which includes Jeffrey Byer and trainer Jim Cassidy. The Usual Q.T. was second in three of his first four races, losing twice by a head. He finished fifth in a main-track sprint at Hollywood Park in early July, his last loss.

It all turned around at Del Mar. A win in a maiden race for statebreds on turf on Aug. 5 was followed by a convincing four-length score in an optional claimer for statebreds on Sept. 2.

The Usual Q.T.'s rapid development continued at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, where the gelding won the California Cup Mile on Oct. 3 and the Grade 2 Oak Tree Derby in a 10-1 upset on Nov. 7.

In the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby, The Usual Q.T. was third early, took the lead in the final furlong, and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Battle of Hastings. The win gave The Usual Q.T. the distinction of being the second California-bred to win a Grade 1 in 2009, preceded by Dancing in Silks in the Breeders' Cup Sprint in November.

Don Van, whose formal name is Don Van Kampen, missed the Hollywood Derby because of illness but watched on television.

"He's a special horse," he said. "I am enjoying my racing again."

Cassidy admitted to having a lump in his throat after the Hollywood Derby, amazed at how far The Usual Q.T. had developed since early August.

"I knew he had talent," Cassidy said. "I thought he'd be in the Cal-bred ranks. It's rewarding when the things you do pay off."

For 2010, Cassidy has lofty goals for The Usual Q.T., including the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Stakes at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby program. In January, The Usual Q.T. will be considered for the San Marcos Stakes at Santa Anita and the Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park.

"My ultimate goal is to run in the Woodford and the Breeders' Cup," Cassidy said. "That might sound over the top right now. I've always wanted to win the Woodford. It's as a close as I'll get to winning the Kentucky Derby."