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Hovdey: In spite of Derby horses, Roy H gets a headline

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Welcome to the first Saturday in February. Let the madness begin. For the next four months, true believers in the racing game will spend most of their time worshipping at the altar of the Triple Crown. All roads lead to Louisville, where a garland of roses and a white puff of smoke will announce the chosen one, then it will be on to Baltimore for validation. Beyond that, the faithful can only hope for a pilgrimage to New York, and the chance for another Triple Crown winner to save the sport anew.

There were around 10,000 male foals in the North American crop of 2015. One of them will win the Kentucky Derby, and with it the hearts of a grateful nation. But after that all bets are off, and recent history is no help. They could turn out to be American Pharoah or California Chrome, and live forever in the firmament of the breed. Or they could be Orb, Nyquist, or Always Dreaming, scrambling for relevance beyond that magical afternoon at Churchill Downs.

Of the 18 Derby winners during the 2000’s, eight have gone on to earn the championship of the division, and two – Chrome and Pharoah – have been Horse of the Year. Of the 10 3-year-old champs who did not win the Derby, four of them were no-shows in Louisville on the big day, including Arrogate in 2016 and West Coast last year. The best any of the others could do on Derby Day was a good third by Curlin and a better third by Afleet Alex.

It should be significant, but probably isn’t, that since 2000 there have been only six Kentucky Derby winners to race at age 4. Two of them were the geldings, Funny Cide and Mine That Bird. Barbaro, sadly, was finished after the Preakness and had a tragic excuse. The others had better things to do at stud, except for Always Dreaming, who is back in serious training. Fingers crossed.

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For all its faults, the Derby remains the one race anyone with a heartbeat wants to win. So enjoy the trip this spring, but be prepared that at certain moments it will feel like every other spring this century, replete with annoying setbacks, disappointing performances, Beyer envy, and the dull, incessant throb of the Kentucky Derby points system, which at some stage will overwhelm the process, the tail that wags the Derby dog.

On Saturday, the party begins on three fronts. The good old Withers – named for New York racing progenitor David Dunham Withers, thank you, turf historian Teresa Genaro – headlines the Aqueduct program and will be run on the main, and only, Big A dirt track this winter. In Florida, the Swale and the Holy Bull give a variety of 3-year-olds a chance to shine, while Santa Anita offers the Robert B. Lewis, a race won recently by the serious Derby players I’ll Have Another, Dortmund, and Pioneerof the Nile.

Santa Anita and Gulfstream are also generous in wrapping good races around their 3-year-old events. But for all the talent assembled, including deep fields in the venerable San Marcos and San Pasqual out West, there is only one bona fide champion suiting up for Saturday’s action. His name is Roy H.

The freshly crowned Eclipse Award Male Sprint winner of 2017 will make his first start in defense of his title in the Grade 2 Palos Verdes Stakes at six furlongs, with Kent Desormeaux aboard once again. This time last year, the son of More Than Ready was little more than a hopeful gleam in the eye of trainer Pete Miller, who to that point had watched Roy H run out a record of one win in 11 starts since his purchase by Gary Hartunian and David Bernson as a 2-year-old for $310,000.

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Named for Hartunian’s grandfather, Roy H made his debut on April 30, 2015. Two days later American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby, which pretty much sucked the air out of the 3-year-old room for the rest of the generation. Roy H won a maiden race in his next start, then lost his next nine races to the growing frustration of all concerned.

“He’d shown signs of brilliance in the morning, so I thought maybe he was a morning glory,” Miller said. “He did have some niggling physical issues that he got over. But the last-ditch effort was the castration.”

Let the record show that Roy H, having shed his testicles as a 4-year-old, won five of six starts in 2017 at age 5 and might have had a perfect record without undue interference from the riderless Drefong in the Bing Crosby at Del Mar. Roy H fired right back with wins in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship and Breeders’ Cup Sprint, adding heft to his earlier cross-country score in the True North at Belmont Park. And while he did not experience the searching campaigns of such past male sprint champions as Not Surprising (13 starts), Guilty Conscience (15), or Gallant Bob (18), he did everything asked of him, and now he’s back for more.

“It’s hard to be patient, especially for owners who want to cut bait when things aren’t going good, but sometimes it pays off,” Miller said.

“We’re looking at a lot of possibilities for him this year, including the Golden Shaheen in Dubai, with the Breeders’ Cup as the end game,” the trainer added. “As far as Saturday, though, he’s awesome. We’re ready to rock and roll.”

 

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